Around the World in 1998-1999; Tuscany Italy
Note; this post is recreated from the original wired2theworld website post with the dates below. The old posts were reformatted for the 20th anniversary of wired2theworld. As much as possible, the content is unchanged and unedited from the original, only some formatting, spelling, and link errors have been corrected.
March 21, 1999
If you can’t go over it…
Go through it. The largest mountain in Europe, Mont Blanc, which marks the axis of the frontier between France, Italy, and Switzerland, does not seem as large to me as it once did. Perhaps, having spent a fortnight in the shadow of the Annapurna Himalaya, I am not as easily impressed by these mountains. They have not lost their appeal, however, only a portion of their stature. The day is beautiful, and even though we started late, not wanting to leave Annecy and the comfort of Tony’s apartment, we are gearing up for new adventures in Italy.
Given the choice of routes into Italy, the most logical appears to be the Mont Blanc tunnel. There is a twelve-kilometer tunnel that connects the Italian Val d’Aosta with the French side near Chamonix. While it is easy to reach the tunnel entrance without driving on any toll roads, there is no alternative to paying the 152 FF toll to use the tunnel. That is unless you want to turn around and drive around the Alps down to the Riviera.
This year, Mont Blanc has been a monument to the destructive forces of nature. The Alps have seen more snow than average this year, and most of came later than usual in the season. It came in huge deliveries, week-long blizzards, followed by nice weather, then more blizzards. The kind of weather pattern that spells disaster in a steep mountainous region. All alpine residents are as familiar with avalanches as we Angelinos are familiar with earthquakes, but imagine a season in LA where a quake like Northridge occurred every week. It was like that this year in the area around Mont Blanc. Avalanches were taking out portions of villages on an almost daily basis, wiping hillsides clean with ferocious energy, leaving death and bewilderment in their wake. From Chamonix to Aosta, nothing was safe.
We witnessed evidence of the unstoppable destructive force of an avalanche as we emerged from the tunnel on the Italian side. There was a strip of trees lying flat on either side of the autostrada, about 1/4 mile wide, beginning on the mountainside, and continuing through where that part of the village used to be. It looked like pictures of the area surrounding Mt. St. Helens after the volcano erupted or the aftermath of an atomic explosion. All the trees were facing the same direction, downhill, and all had been snapped at the base in the same way, in the same place. Where there had been buildings, there were splinters. Oddly, one building was only half missing, its fate to have been just at the edge of the avalanche.
When a wall of snow falls down the side of the mountain from great heights, it carries with it a force like few things on earth. In New Zealand, we learned of avalanche dangers from the air blast alone, caused by the fallen snow nearby, that could toss a tour bus like a bit of trash in the wind. The terrible power of that snow was visible to us here. Thank goodness that avalanche season seemed to be over for the year. It would not be the end of disaster season for Mont Blanc, however, as we would find out in a few days (see March 25).
Once we left the tunnel, we continued on the nonpay roads down the Val d’Aosta. What a beautiful little valley! I had been here once before, a long time ago, but did not remember it very clearly. One sees different things from the car window when one is 16 than one does at 30.
What struck us both was the number of castles up in the highlands. It seemed disproportionate, like in the Bordeaux region of France, but without the excuse of vineyards. Were these the royal ski castles of ancient jet-setting nobles? I tend to think not, as skiing for recreation was not fashionable until much later than the construction of these castles. Another distinct factor of the region was how well everything was preserved. None of these palatial manors and fortified keeps were crumbling or even in disrepair. In contrast to other parts of Europe, where we saw plenty of ‘ruins’ these were far from it. But, we were en route to a distant destination, and we had started the day late, so we did not try to stop and visit any of these places.
We drove on until it was dark. We were coming to the conclusion that the Italians were not as well equipped in the motor hotel market like France, as we saw nothing even close. Finally, we used our guidebook to attempt a landing for the evening. What we discovered, to our utter astonishment, was crap! And really expensive crap at that! 220,000 lira for a double room with a shower, in a town I would never stop in as a tourist, unless I was desperate for gas or a toilet, seemed absurd, so we moved on. We found more of the same. 80 -100 dollars per night seemed average for a “three star” hotel, and everyone and their brother had a freaking “three-star hotel”. Even the pizza joint with rooms upstairs was a “three-star hotel”. We began to realize that something was fishy here, and we couldn’t quite figure it out.
We drove on, stopping at every little place we saw that said “rooms”, only to find more of the same. We came to the conclusion that all hotels in Italy have a price range set by the government, and rankings based on services, that are also set by the government. Any crappy little hotel with a telephone, tv and a shower and toilet in the room could thus qualify for the exorbitant three-star category, so of course, there were no budget hotels. Ahh, Italy.
March 22, 1999
We left this morning and headed to Florence, hoping to stop for lunch and buy an Italy guidebook in English, which we had so far been unable to find anywhere. Well, we made the mistake of getting off at the Firenze-Nord exit and wound up literally driving around in circles for an hour and a half trying to find our way into the city center! We finally made it, had lunch, and found a bookstore, after much walking around in the rain (and a cup of gelato from our favorite place on the Via Calzaiouli).
We wound up buying both the Frommer’s Italy (for the good food and other info) and the Lonely Planet Italy (for the budget accommodations listings). Frommer’s “inexpensive” accommodations start at $80 and most are in the $150 range! But, they do have lots of info for people who are driving through the country, unlike the Lonely Planet, which focuses more on people taking the train.
After we left Florence we headed East to a tiny little town called Poppi. Months ago, my mother had come across a website that listed several villas in Tuscany for rent. We wrote to the man who represented them, Thomas Behnke, and discovered that even though the villas were too large for us, and way out of our budget, he had a small apartment for rent inside the city walls. So, we got here and were of course apprehensive, not knowing exactly what to expect.
When we arrived, Thomas led us downstairs into the building’s basement. I thought, “what have we gotten ourselves into?” But then he opened the door and we were pleasantly surprised. What greeted us was a charming room with walls made of stone, brick, archways, and a ceiling of ancient giant wooden beams. The house itself is in a 400-year-old building that is, literally inside the city walls! One of the walls of the apartment is the ancient city wall itself.
From the back porch, one looks up the hill to the 15th-century castle that crowns the town! Everything is original, but the place has been nicely renovated. The kitchen is totally functional, with beautiful tile on the floor, gorgeous wooden cabinets, etc. There is a nicely tiled white bathroom and an alcove for the bedroom.
That evening we went to a big supermarket and bought a ton of food. The markets are great, all these amazing fresh products; cheeses, fresh pasta, cured meats. Anything and everything. I was actually looking forward to being able to cook for the next two weeks. For dinner that night I made a salad of romaine lettuce with goat’s cheese and a warm dressing with pancetta. Then I made pasta with fresh tagliatelle, chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, and pesto. Yum!
March 23, 1999
Today we drove to Perugia in search of a good lunch. Perugia is famous for its Bacci chocolates, although I must admit, we didn’t eat any. We woke up late, left later, and then got lost on the way there. The highways in Italy are fairly well marked, but never when you need them to be. Sometimes the roads only have signs pointing to the town at the end of that highway, not necessarily where you are going or even including the number of the highway you want to be on! Anyway, by the time we arrived, we discovered that the restaurants we wanted were closed, either for the day or for the season. So, we had expensive, but very good, pizza in one of the only places we could find open. After that, we checked out the Cathedral, which was, of course, under restoration and scaffolding, and then drove home.
March 24, 1999
We used the books to our advantage today, finding a restaurant that was recommended in The Lonely Planet and seeking it. Setting out with enough time to locate the restaurant before they closed and still get a table. We found the Antico Trattoria, Cucina da Guido with a little guesswork and a half-decent map, only to discover that the secret had gotten out. The restaurant is tiny, with cramped tables, in a one-room dining area with the inevitable bar. There were no tables available, and people standing ahead of us already. Then, just to make it even less pleasant, a pushy Italian guy with three American tourists in tow, rudely pushed his way into the front of the waiting crowd and grabbed the first available table. The two dark-suited gentlemen in front of us barely expressed their displeasure with the boisterous show-off who was clearly trying to impress his cargo, probably future business partners, but I was pissed.
Perhaps it is because I am a teacher, but I have a serious problem with people who cut in line. This was especially difficult in Asia, where cultural differences in the whole approach to taking turns and service order made me nuts. In Asia, everyone just pushes and shoves. It is survival of the fittest, strongest, and most pushy. It may work for them, but it was difficult for me to adjust to at first. Finally, I learned to use my Western size to my advantage and found that I could be as pushy and insensitive to other prospective patrons as was required by the locals, and I was served with more speed and to greater satisfaction. Alas, I had not expected the same kind of behavior in Italy, where I discovered similar actions, but mostly due to impatience and a general lack of consideration for others, instead of a cultural phenomenon like in Asia. Had I been more alert, I might have stepped in front of the guy, or perhaps tripped him inadvertently. We waited another 20 minutes for a table and were finally seated.
We had a bottle of Chianti Classico DOCG, 1996, San Felice, because Kristina recognized it as something she had tried once before and liked. The primi piati were the best part of this meal. Kristina had Tagliatelle al Tartufo, which means ‘with truffles’. The Umbrian (Umbria is just south of Tuscany) and Tuscan countrysides are replete with the rare aromatic truffle, a sort of subterranean mushroom or fungus. Special pigs are used to locate and dig up these extremely hard-to-find expensive treasures. They are used because of the strong rich flavors that even a tiny bit of shaved truffle brings to whatever is cooked with them. I had Gnocchi con Gorgonzola. Gnocchi is a sort of potato dumpling pasta ball which, when made well, are light and fluffy. The problem with gnocchi is that they are almost never done right, and end up heavy and chewy, sitting like lead on one’s stomach. Not today. These were the best gnocchi I have ever eaten, and the gorgonzola cheese sauce was delicious. They were so deceptively light, I could have kept eating more had there been any.
When the secondi piati arrived, it was my turn to have truffles. I had ordered Steak with truffle jus, or Beef al Scaglie Tartufo, as the menu called it. It was fantastic. The truffle flavor permeates the flavor of everything, which is great if you like truffle. Kristina was more adventurous, opting to try the Coniglio al Forno, or, roast Rabbit. Sure enough, it tastes like chicken! I had never eaten rabbit before, but I was willing to try it, and although it was a little dry, it was quite good.
We split a Torta della Nonna, a local pastry, for desert, and capped it all off with a couple glasses of liqueur. I had been noticing most of the patrons finishing their meal with the house Amaro, or bitter digestive liqueur. If you have ever tried Jagermeister, you know what Amaro is. It turns out that there is a huge range of variety of flavor among Amaros, and Jagermeister is just one end of the spectrum. Vecchio Amaro del Capo was the house brand, and they served it ice cold, right out of the freezer. It was delicious. The show-off waiter gave it the ice cold liqueur a three foot high dramatic pour from above his head, which we duly appreciated, and we toasted another good meal. I was so taken with this liqueur, however, that I decided to look for a bottle in the liquor stores. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would not be successful in my search for Vecchio Amaro del Capo, but I would begin sampling Amaros everywhere I went, beginning a new quest in alcoholic research: ‘In search of the perfect Amaro’.
March 25, 1999
When it Rains, it Pours
Thursday’s Herald Tribune had a tiny clip with news of the tragic Mont Blanc Tunnel fire. It was a small article, but it was clear that the destruction and carnage were not small. I have decided that Mont Blanc is not a happy place this year, and we will only examine it from a distance, while skiing. We missed being burned alive, deep in the bowels of the biggest tunnel in the biggest mountain in Europe, by about 56 hours. Just over two days is a pretty safe margin for escaping disaster; it’s not as if the back of my head was singed and a little warm still, but we do look at long tunnels differently now.
It rained all day. The same rain and wind kept the fire in the tunnel at Mont Blanc burning for two days after it began, effectively eliminating the chances of survivors on the inside of the terrifying inferno. We stayed in and worked on web site. Kristina cooked. We had just been shopping in Arezzo, at the HiperCoop, and had tons of fresh food. Our ancient dwelling was victualed for at least three days of hard indoor storm riding. She made ravioli al fungi with sun-dried tomatoes, porcini mushroom, pancetta, and cream sauce,.. for lunch. I read the paper, ate, and cleaned the dishes. For dinner, roasted chicken on the oven rotisserie. Our patron, Thomas, had just installed a new oven, and he didn’t know much about how the oven portion functioned. Inside, we had discovered a built-in rotisserie, and had deciphered the mechanics of making it work.
We had some difficulty with the balance of the chicken on the spit, so we had to improvise a solution- fast. I finally untrussed one of the wrapped packages of Port Wine which I had remembered was wrapped in brown paper, then tied like a parcel for postage. This string would serve as butcher’s twine, and Kristina was finally able to tie up the chicken properly and balance it. Delicious!
We had taken a chance at the grocery store and purchased a bottle of Chianti Rufina, from a vineyard whose name we had seen on a billboard driving to Poppi from Florence. I assumed, correctly, that this was the region for Rufina, not Classico, to be the Rufina region for Chianti vineyards. It is called Nippozano, and is fabulous. They have a wine tasting facility and store at the castle, but you can buy it at good wine shops, and the hipercoop. Chianti Rufina, 1995-1997 all good, Nipozzano Riserva Marchesi de Frescobaldi. They have a couple of wines just one significant step up in quality, and price, and one label which is competing with Opus I, at nearly $100 bottle for the pleasure. It is called Luce, and is also available in the States, as it is the product of a partnership between Frescobaldi and Mondavi. That’s right, Robert Mondavi, whose vineyard is producing a better product than you might remember from the last decade. There has been a positive shakeup in the 90’s at R. Mondavi and it has been to the benefit of the consumer.
That night, we were invited by our host, Thomas, to watch an amateur musical presentation in the 12th-century church. The group of German singers and musicians that had rented one of Thomas’s places for a workshop was performing their stuff. They were doing this mostly for themselves, as the opportunity to sing in an ancient church only comes around so often. Kristina and I felt a little out of place, but once the group began, it got a little more interesting. They played lutes and the organ, and they sang as a group and in various combinations. It was an entertaining evening.
March 27, 1999
Today we decided we had to get out of the house, even though it was raining. Our destination, San Gimignano, southwest of us, on the other side of Florence. Both David and I had been there before; once on our honeymoon, and I had been there previously with my mother.
San Gimignano is one of the oldest and best-preserved of the “hill towns” of Tuscany. It has been referred to as the “Manhattan of Tuscany” because of a multitude of towers, 12 of which are still standing. Unfortunately, it is because of this excellent preservation and the proximity to Florence that it is constantly besieged with tourists and crowded with souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants cashing in on all those tourist dollars. It seemed to me, as we were jostled by the crowds of Italian teenagers on field trips, and older Germans from the tour busses, that it was worse than I had remembered. It was certainly worse than it had been on my first trip there six years ago.
Anyway, we would not have gone at all, except that we wanted to see something that was only in one of our guidebooks, the Torture Museum (Via del Castello, 1/3). We also wanted to have a nice lunch at a restaurant we had read about. The lunch was disappointing, but the museum was not. It was fascinating, gothic, macabre, and brutal. We loved it and were repulsed at the same time.
The museum consists of examples of torture devices from the middle ages, through the Spanish Inquisition, to the present day. There are chairs with spikes, a guillotine, methods of hanging, and various objects used for the torture of specific body parts. There are explanations of each exhibit in 8 different languages. The museum shows how some of the devices are currently in use in repressive societies to torture dissidents or extract information, often having been modified in recent history so as not to leave a mark on the body. The exhibit also focuses on how women throughout the ages have been the focus of many of these instruments in order to silence their opinions, supposed “errors in judgment”, and even “witchcraft”. There is also an exhibit of an electric chair, built in the 1950’s in the US. Alongside it is an up-to-date list of all the people who have been executed in the US in the last couple of years.
March 30, 1999
The other night we had a delicious bottle of Chianti, the Nippozano one I mentioned earlier. We had gambled on this bottle of wine because I recognized the name from a quaint hilltop vineyard we had driven past on our first day in Tuscany. We had since passed the billboard many times and learned of their wine shop/ tasting room.
We deemed that today was as good as any to go and drink wine so we headed towards Florence. Kristina has been experiencing a little car sickness lately, and today was no different. The only drawback to the location we are in is that anywhere you go, it is a little windy road that takes you there. We veered off the main road at the billboard, and voyaged along a small hilltop road for a few kilometers before we arrived at Castello de Nippozano.
I could tell from a good distance that this would be our destination because the entire facade of the building was covered in … Scaffolding! That’s right, it never fails. We stopped, and Kristina got out anyway, to look in the doorway of what looked to be a future wine room. To my surprise, I was given the thumbs-up signal from my wife, and I parked near the work crew, who paid us no mind.
Stepping into the wine shop was like a stop-frame slice out of day-to-day life: Setting up a business for day 1 of the season. Chaos was the order of the moment. There was wine on all the shelves and a big barrel in the center of the room of where it had become a table for serving. The floor was covered with mostly empty boxes, which two young women were hurriedly clearing away. We were approached by the only guy who seemed relaxed in the whole bunch. His English was fairly decent and he seemed friendly enough. It turned out that he was the guy in charge of growing all the grapes for Frescobaldi wines and knew his wine very intimately.
“The 97 is going to be even better when it comes out” he said beaming the smile of a proud father. Here was a man who knew each label’s contents from bare vine to crushing better than anyone else, and I was taking his word for it. He opened a bottle of the really good wine, Montesodi, which was all San Giovese grapes, and the best from their vines, assured the cool young gentleman. It was really, really good. Of course, we could not justify the expenditure for the really good wine, which was not even the best wine, which they had. Luce, a joint production with California’s Robert Mondavi, rivals Opus One, and is priced accordingly, nearly $100 per bottle. The really good wine was 46,000 Lire, and the same bottle of Nippozano we had tried from the Hipercoop was 18,000 Lire, which was 2,000 more than on the shelf at the big market. We settled for the Nippozano because we could not leave empty-handed, and it was very good, and 2,000 lire is only a buck.
We learned a few things about Chianti in the whole experience of Tuscan culinary culture. There is much more than the Chianti Classico available, and we didn’t like the Classico as much some of the others. The Chianti region is vast in Tuscany, and it consists of many smaller regional varieties that come from different climatic conditions, giving the wine a whole different character. The Frescobaldi wines, including Nippozano, were Chianti Ruffino.
Ruffino Chianti comes from the area in the mountains east of Florence, from about 800-1000 meters higher in altitude. We could still see snow at the tops of the mountains, and the area was frequently in the clouds. This climate difference produces good results.
In between Rufino and the city of Florence is another tasty region, Colli Fiorentini, meaning Florentine Hills. We tried and liked Castello di Poppiano, a Colli Fiorentini DOCG 1993 Reserva from the wineries of Conte Ferdinando Guicciardini.
The Chianti Classico region stretches South by Southwest out from Florence, heading towards Rome. There is a region called Colli Arrentino, from the hills near Arezzo, and many others as well.
Each wine has a variety of label distinctions to look for. DOC, or DOCG is something to look for, the latter being the more desirable of the two. DOCG means Denomination and Origin Controlled and Guaranteed and is the highest government distinction a wine can receive within a region. Further, look and see if it is Riserva or Gran Riserva, and take a chance here and there.
We were already three-quarters of the way to Florence, so we decided to pay a visit to the Carthusian Monastery that Thomas Benkhe had recommended. In order to reach this magnificent site from Florence, head south on the autostrada towards Sienna and Rome, and you will see it on top of its hill somewhere around 6-8 kilometers out of Florence. The first thing one notices about the monastery is how magnificent the structure is. It is huge and marvelously detailed. It appears to be just what it is, a mini-city totally self-contained and isolated from the outside. Except for the tours, of course. Guided tours are given every half hour by a black and white-robed Carthusian Monk, who meets visitors at a locked gate positioned at the base of the ramp leading into the structure.
The monk who led our tour was very serious, and he spoke only in Italian, although it was clearly not his mother tongue. That was only a minor inconvenience, however, because we understood most of it. I don’t believe he smiled during the entire tour, which took about three-quarters of an hour. He led us up the ramp and into several great chapels and halls, where ancient paintings, frescos, and tapestry hung in various states of decay and disrepair, begging for proper climate control. Then we were led out into one of many courtyards. This rectangle, enclosed by whitewashed walls, had one distinct feature; there were faux doors painted on the walls, in places where doors might have been if one had wanted to put in a few. They were very convincing, and a style I had not seen in monasteries thus far.
We were shown the main chapel, the refectory/ dining area, where they ate in silence while being preached to by a fellow monk. We were shown several smaller chapels and conference rooms. Then we were taken out into the cloisters which are artfully detailed with different figures at the top of each column. Off the Cloisters were 26 doors, each with a different letter of the alphabet. Behind these were the Monk’s apartments, of which we were shown into one. Each little apartment was sparsely furnished, but cozy, built for two on each level. Each apartment section of two or three stories had a balcony and a small shared plot for a garden.
The tour is absolutely worth it, and you do pay, even though some guidebooks say that it is free with donations accepted. At the end of the tour, it’s donation time! When the monk held out his hand to everyone and looked away, we gave 10,000 lire, and to the parking monk 2,000 lire. We stopped into the one shop gift shop and bar, where we tried the monk’s very own home-brewed Amaro liqueur. It was good, but we did not buy any.
The Poppi Castle
April 1, 1999
In the early afternoon, we made the hour drive up into the hills above Poppi to a Monastery called La Verna, founded by Saint Francis. We went because we had been told that the monks, who have taken a vow of silence, chant as they walk from one chapel of the monastery to another, every day at 3 PM. Well, since it was the Holy Week before Easter, the Monks weren’t adhering to their normal schedule and there was no 3 PM mass, and hence, no chanting monks. I didn’t want to make the trip a total waste, so I insisted to David that we walk around and check out the place as long as we were there. He was pissed and wanted to leave then and there, as an incentive to coming back the next Monday when they would be back on schedule. We walked around quickly and then went back to Poppi.
In the afternoon we finally went to see the castle in Poppi, the town’s main tourist attraction. We had tried to go a couple of days ago, but it had been closed in preparation for two large exhibits. One was an exhibit of a modern painter of brutal Franciscan themes and the second was an exhibit of medieval, hand-painted, and hand-written bibles. Today was the first day of both exhibits and the place was filled with people there for a large reception open to the public.
We began by walking through the castle, top to bottom, exploring the rooms, which are in remarkably good shape for something so old. The castle was built by the Count Guidi family over the course of a few decades of the late 1200s. It is surrounded by a deep moat and a high outside wall. Inside, the castle is three stories high, trapezoidal in shape with an interior courtyard open to the sky. Inside the courtyard is a large stone staircase with the original covered wooden balconies.
There are frescos on the walls of all the rooms and the walls outside in the courtyard. One, in the bottom floor ballroom, is the Virgin and Child from the Botticelli School. The Great Hall upstairs is frescoed in a decorative motif from floor to ceiling. In the library are hundreds of medieval texts and manuscripts, and because of the exhibit, many more hand-painted bibles were open to public view. Some of these bibles were ancient hymnals, and therefore quite large and elaborate with multicolored and gilt decoration.
We were thrilled to see this castle because it is not something we would have ordinarily seen had we not been staying in Poppi. That night we had dinner in Poppi at the Albergo Ristorante La Torricella, which we had been told was the best restaurant in the area. The Torricella sits atop a small hill all its own, commanding a view of both the old and new towns of Poppi and the castle, and is also a very nice small hotel. For dinner we had a nice regional Chianti called Castello di Poppiano, Chianti Colli Fiorentini Reserva, 1993, DOCG, Conte Ferdinando Guicciardini. We started with the house specialty, the ravioli with spinach, ricotta, and ragu, and the tortelloni w/tartufo (truffles). For our main course, we had scaloppini with fungi porcini and grilled beefsteak. It was all nicely done and it felt good to get out of the kitchen to have dinner.
Il Bucco and Arezzo
April 2, 1999
This morning we headed out to a tiny little town called Il Bucco which was only about 40 Km away, but still took over an hour to get to by the tiny, winding, backcountry roads. We were going there because it was supposed to be a perfect example of an old self-contained Tuscan village. However, when we got there we found that the entire small town was closed due to road work! From a distance it looked very cute, but who knows?
At this point, we decided to try and not waste the day and headed toward Arezzo. The last time we went, although we had a good lunch, it had been raining so hard we were unable to see any of the town. This time we had this time good weather so we walked around and had great gelato. The town itself is charming and has a large main square surrounded by antique shops.
On the first Sunday of every month, there is a large antique fair in the streets. There is, of course, a large Gothic cathedral which we saw, and a very interesting 12th-century church with a Romanesque facade complete with columns, each which has a different design. Mixed in with all the old beautiful architecture are walking streets for shopping and some nice restaurants. Some of the buildings are covered with beautiful frescos in decorative patterns. I think this would be a nice town to stay in while exploring the area.
That night, we were just finishing dinner when we heard classical music and Italian chants coming from a loudspeaker outside. We opened the door on the patio and walked over to the edge of the wall and looked down to the street below. There we saw over 100 people in a procession with lit candles, following a priest and a man carrying a large cross. We watched for a while as the procession moved slowly, stopping intermittently for the priest to say prayers. We could tell that they were headed back into the center of town and then to the 12th-century church at the end of our street. So, we put our shoes on and went upstairs to watch it pass by.
As the procession reached the front of our building, it stopped again and a hymn was sung. Affected by the feeling of the group, we found ourselves moved along by the crowd toward the church. Once inside, we found the church candlelit and completely filled by the processioners. As we stood in the back, I found it fascinating to hear Mass in the church as it may have been hundreds of years ago, the bare stone walls eerily lit by the flickering candles. Soon, it was over and we were back in our cozy little cave.
April 3, 1999
Wine recommendation of the evening; Barone Ricasoli, Formulae 1996, Sangiovse de Toscana, aged in an oak barrel.
Easter Sunday in Florence Italy
April 4, 1999
This morning we awoke early to absolutely perfect, beautiful, spring weather. We drove the hour into Florence, and arrived around 9:00 AM, surprised that we were able to find a parking space on the street. In fact, we were so surprised at the lack of people on the street where we parked that we wondered if we had arrived too late, or had been misinformed about the day.
We traveled to Florence on Easter Sunday to see the annual spectacle called Scoppio del Carro. We had read about an event that was held in the Piazza del Duomo which included fireworks supposedly set off by a clay dove that descends on a wire from inside the Duomo. Since there didn’t seem to be anything planned in Poppi for that Sunday, we decided to go and brave the inevitable crowds.
As we wound our way through the streets of Florence, we began to see more people, some headed toward the Duomo, some toward the many museums that were open specially on that day. We arrived at Piazza del Duomo before 9:30 am. The first thing I noticed was that for once, the front of the Duomo was not encased in scaffolding! It had been beautifully cleaned and restored and looked better than on any of my three previous visits to Florence. The green, pink, and white marble were in all of its technicolor glory, gleaming in the Spring sunshine.
At this point, we noted that the crowds weren’t that thick yet, but we had no idea of what time the event would truly begin. David asked one of the impeccably dressed policemen, who were wearing much more fashionable uniforms than our own LAPD, and he told us we’d have to wait until almost 11 AM. We walked around the Piazza in search of a good place to stand and wait. First, we attempted to stand in front of the Baptistery, but we were told to move as the police would not be allowing tourists to stand there so close to where the fireworks would be. Someone pointed out to us where the best vantage point would be, just to the left of the steps of the Duomo. We walked over there but were already too late to be in the front row. Still, it was a good location and from that point, we waited almost 1 1/2 hours for the event to begin. By 11 AM the crowd was 25 rows deep and had completely blocked the streets surrounding the Duomo.
Suddenly, from a distance, we could hear the sound of drums and the crowd across the Piazza parted to allow the procession through. First came the musicians, then the flag bearers, then half a dozen women, all dressed in Renaissance costumes. Following them came a brigade of drummers and more flag bearers, this time throwing their flags (representing different areas of Tuscany) in the air in a complicated set of maneuvers.
Then the firework-loaded float was slowly wheeled into the center of the Piazza. For almost an hour, while workers in tool belts readied the float, the drummers and the flag throwers entertained the crowds. And in the midst of all this pageantry, there was a procession of clerics and choir from Cathedral to Baptistery and back again.
Finally, the time had come that everyone was waiting for. A hush came over the crowd, space was cleared around the float, and then with a high-pitched whoosh, they let the dove fly and Bang! Off went the elaborate fireworks. Most were small firecrackers that sounded like gunfire and were strung all around the float. At the end, a huge fountain of sparks erupted from the top, and then it was over. The cheering crowds disbursed surprisingly fast and we headed for lunch, hoping to find a place to eat before every restaurant in the area filled to capacity.
We finally settled on lunch in a wine bar called Vini Vecchi near the Palazzo Vecchio. This tiny place only seats about 20 but appeared to be recommended by a couple of different guidebooks, as posted on their window. We chose a small corner table and were immediately attracted by the assorted crostini and antipasti set on platters on the small counter. We had a plate of these to start, sausage and beans, chicken cacciatore, and wine by the glass.
After lunch, we walked around the city and decided to go to the Pitti Palace, the only thing in Florence we have not seen. Unfortunately, it still is! We arrived, only to discover that most of the separate museums inside were closed. It will have to wait for another time.
From there we went to the famous street market of Florence, the San Lorenzo Market. We thought it would be closed, being Sunday and a religious holiday, but capitalism was out in full force that day. The market is mostly junk, cheap clothing, and tourist trinkets, but cheap leather jackets of decent quality can be found. We bought David two silk ties, which are always abundant and inexpensive, a leather wallet, and a small dress purse for me.
By this time it was past 3 PM and we decided to escape and hit the road before everyone else did. On the way out of town, we drove up the hill across the Arno river to the Piazzale Michelangelo to see the incredible view of all Florence down below.
La Verna Monastery
April 5, 1999
La Verna, revisited..
I will take all the credit for this trip, as I feel it is my due. I threw an absolute fit about how the last trip to the monastery was a worthless waste of time, we shouldn’t have stayed, yadda yadda, etc. I whined until Kristina begrudgingly came along. She had not truly wanted to go anywhere, as I had predicted she would, which is why I had made it clear that I was going back regardless.
When we made the first visit, we had confirmed that the monks would resume singing on Easter Sunday, and today as well. I was not going to waffle on my commitment of last week, because I knew that if we didn’t go, I would not be able to let it go. Dog with a bone, as my wife likes to say when she is being obnoxious, but sometimes it is true. However, it made no sense to miss this, especially being so close. It was our last full day of residence at Poppi, and we could not let it go to waste. Of course, it began to rain on the way up, and when we arrived, it was like Grand Central Station, complete with the Port Authority Bus Terminal attached. There were tour buses for miles, and cars parked for almost 5 kilometers along both sides of the approach road. We forged our way to the top, and I could feel a foul mood brewing in my head as the crowds thickened. But, to my astonishment, the primo parking spot in the small lot at the top magically opened up between the car in front of me and yours truly. Smiling, I waved the car out of its slot, making sure that nobody was maneuvering to snag it from me, and bingo! Parked. This sudden fortune deflated much of my anger, and we proceeded up the path, to the monastery. It was crowded.
We found a spot at the back of the main basilica, and eventually, the mass dell’ora nona began, with some friars singing, and reading intermittently. After about 30 minutes of this, they lined up in procession formation, led by a monk wielding a very big cross. We had acquired a copy of the dell’ora nona mass, and tried to follow along as they chanted and processed towards the capella della stigmata, or stigmata chapel.
You must imagine the monastery, as it built on the edge of mountain top cliff, and half of the walls are actually the stone of the cliff itself. The passages are long, narrow, and steep, and the chapel we are heading to is not very large at all, and only has one way in and out. When I say we, I mean Kristina, myself, and about three hundred other people all moving along behind the procession, or lining the walkway along the procession. picking up the real as it passes. We were ultimately herded down a passageway, down a flight of stairs, through a small doorway, down some more stairs, and into this chapel, through an even tinier doorway.
At this point, KJ and I say “no way”, and stopped, just outside the very tiny doorway leading into the last chapel. From here we could see in, at least until the chapel was full and the antechamber we were standing in was full. The crowds simply moved forward like sheep, until they could get no closer, then they stopped. The entire monastery is wired for sound, so the continuation of mass could be heard by all the masses, wherever they happened to be stuck. We realized it was now or never and pushed our way up the first few stairs, through the tightly packed people, to a side passage leading to the precipice.
Out here, supposedly, St. Francis slept to pay his penance. Brrr. There was a precarious little walkway that wound around the cliff’s edge, and back up the exterior wall of the monastery, finally letting us back in safely away from the claustrophobic nightmare that continued to participate below us. We took a quick peek in the gift shop and bought nothing. We drove home satisfied, although not overwhelmed by the whole experience.
We’ve been back to Italy many times since this trip.
For more, check out our main Italy Page.
Have you been to Tuscany? Thinking of going?
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What a fantastic re-report!
I can’t wait to be able to hit the road again. IT is a fave.
I wonder if the castles in the Val d’Aosta highlands functioned as “toll booths,” to extract payment when allowing shipment of goods thru the area.
Aaah! Amaro Del Capo 🙂
I lucked into it a few years ago in Rome.
Talking to our waitress after lunch at a cute, modern caffe, I mentioned that I loved amari after a meal, but find them too heavy on such a warm day as it was.
Never fear. She brought me an ice cold Amaro Del Capo.
Thinner, cold, crisp…it was absolutely perfect.
It is always a great idea to chat up the locals.
Sonoma, CA USA
Thank you so much for the lovely comments and memories! I can’t wait to return to Italy too!