On Sunday, my dad arrived at our Florence apartment early in the morning to pick up Penelope for her solo vacation with grandparents. Penelope was quite excited for this side trip, and her parents were also looking forward to a few days together in Tuscany. 🙂
So Penelope headed off to the grandparents’ camper… and on to Lucca, Pisa, Padua, and Venice, while we finished packing up the rest of the baggage and went to pick up our rental car. We’d reserved an adorable Fiat 500L, which was surprisingly roomy. After securing our bags in the trunk, adjusting all the mirrors, and reviewing the directions, we were off! From Florence to San Gimignano, our first stop. It took several tries to leave Florence though—we kept taking slightly wrong turns and heading back into the city instead of out to the countryside. But eventually we made it to the open landscapes around the city.
Unfortunately, by the time we arrived in San Gimignano, it was pouring rain and the normally beautiful views from the hilltop were obscured by clouds. We pulled into the parking lot anyway, to decide what to do next, and as we attempted to park, the car started sliding… and sliding… and would.not.stop. Finally, about two feet away from a parked BMW, we came to a stop—but only with both the parking brake engaged AND Jeremy’s foot on the brake. The combination of rain, slick cobblestones, and grass underneath had combined to make the situation somewhat… difficult. I didn’t start really panicking until Jeremy said we’d have to call for a tow. Given his normally optimistic approach to problem-solving, this statement felt particularly ominous. I got out of the car and walked over to stand under a nearby olive tree, scanning our rental agreement for the right number to call.
At that point, the family who owned the BMW suddenly appeared, and were, quite fortunately, both English and incredibly helpful. The dad ushered his kids into the car, the mom came to stand with me, and then he somehow managed to squeeze past our precariously balanced vehicle to put their car at a safe remove. Then he encouraged Jeremy to try reversing again—and our Fiat rolled forward once more. By now another party of locals had stopped to help, and with three men pushing the Fiat uphill while Jeremy floored the car, they managed to get the car on safer ground. Then they all quickly and quietly dispersed, while I (now soaking wet) rejoined Jeremy in the car. We parked nearby on more level ground, gathered our wits, and decided it might be best to tour San Gimignano another day.
We drove onward to our next AirBnB, west of Asciano. En route, we stopped at one of the few grocery stores open on Palm Sunday, just outside of Siena. The store was located inside a small mall, and it was fun to see this slice of suburban life. I was particularly impressed by the escalators in the mall, which had been designed to hold grocery carts at an angle.
We finally arrived to the top of a hillside in Tuscany, up a cypress-lined drive, to our new temporary home. And what a view. The rain had cleared, and the birds were singing, and it was just perfectly beautiful.
We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening settling in and enjoying long stretches of companionable silence. And then went outside to the patio at sunset…
On Monday, the weather was clearer, but still cold, so we opted to take The Heart of Tuscany driving tour outlined by Rick Steves (forever our trusty tour guide). On the way toward our first small town, we stopped to take a picture of our Tuscan home. Pretty amazing.
We spent about four hours on the road, soaking in the gorgeous views near and far, and stopping in different hill towns during the day. Our longest stop was a good long wander around Montepulciano, which was a lovely hill town, complete with fortifications, huge cliffs and walls, and gorgeous views around every corner.
That evening we relaxed at home—and I even watched a movie! without interruptions! I’m pleased to report I very much enjoyed Bohemian Rhapsody, and I’ve had Queen songs running through my mind in the days since.
Meanwhile in Pisa… Penelope and my folks had arrived to see (and climb!) the famous Leaning Tower. My mother stayed on the ground, since her knee has been more painful than usual of late. They sent along these great pics.
Tuesday morning dawned sunny and gorgeous—look at these flowers in the garden! I don’t think I captured any of the enormous bees swarming around the blossoms, and you can’t hear the ever-present birdsong, but trust me when I say the scene was positively pastoral.
With such gorgeous weather, we decided to tempt fate and return to San Gimignano (stopping en route at a pharmacie in a nearby town to find some allergy meds for Jeremy, who appears to be somewhat allergic to Italian pollen). There we spotted one of the strangest public murals I’ve ever seen.
After about an hour’s drive, we arrived back at the very same parking lot—but the skies were sunny and we had no trouble at all this time. Climbing the hill up to the center of town, we soon spotted the towers for which San Gimignano is justly famous. We spent the next few hours walking around, turning down side streets, enjoying both city sights and sweeping views from the overlooks.
Inside one shop, we found a wonderful scale model of San Gimignano, circa 1300—along with the interior architecture of one of the towers. Loved this idea—and it was a great aid in thinking about how these towers were actually used.
At the top of the hill, we spotted Dante himself, reciting the first lines of the Inferno from memory. My Italian is almost non-existent, but I immediately recognized those first lines: “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, / ché la diritta via era smarrita.” A wonderful performance!
After we finished our afternoon in San Gimignano, we headed back home to our little home on the hillside, just in time to enjoy another beautiful sunset.
On Wednesday we were off to Orvieto. Realizing our tank was getting low, we stopped for diesel somewhere between Asciano and Orvieto.
About an hour and a half later, we arrived in Orvieto and bought our tickets to ride our funicular up to the historic town centre. Orvieto, like so many of the hill towns in Tuscany, is a fortified town on an actual hill. In this case, Orvieto was built at the top of a nearly 1000ft outcropping of tufa. So most tourists park at the large parking lot at the base and take the charming three-car funicular to the top. As we waited to depart, I asked Jeremy to snap a selfie together. Results were not quite what I planned… but still true to form.
We reached the top and then boarded the city shuttle for just a few minutes, arriving at the cathedral and the heart of town. And the cathedral was simply gorgeous. Like nearby Florence, Orvieto chose to decorate the outside of the Duomo with lively marbles and mosaic, and the effect is quite stunning. But even more impressive is in the inside. The windows are a combination of stained glass and alabaster, and the latter bathes the church interior with a warm glow. The effect is one of soothing welcome, and that feeling is bolstered by the bright frescoes and golden glow from mosaics and painted ceiling stars.
We spent an hour wandering around the interior, marveling in particular at the Chapel of San Brizio, painted by Luca Signorelli. The frescoes contain scenes from the Last Judgment, beginning with the preaching of the Antichrist (often thought to portray Savonarola) and ending with the Damned being tortured in Hell while the Elect enjoy Paradise. While it’s a familiar series of scenes, the paintings themselves are gorgeous—and quite realistically painted. And just below these larger frescoes, portraits of Italian artists and writers—these were two of my favorites.
Next, we toured the nearby museums, including a bit of the open vaults under the cathedral, a modern Italian sculptor’s work, and some of the original frescoes and statues from the church.
My favorite spot in the museum was definitely the Libreria Alberi, the beautifully decorated room that housed the personal library of Archbishop Antonio Alberi. The frescoes are from the same time period as the Chapel of San Brizio, so they are mostly like by Signorelli and his assistants—but here the subjects are secular. Around the walls are portraits of authors who were contained in this library, in the fields of law, philosophy, history, poetry, and more. But best of all was the creature perched on a window nook: a reading monkey, complete with glasses.
The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling through the streets of the town, from the center to the cliffs, enjoying the sunny day.
And that same day, in a campground near Venice, Penelope celebrated her upcoming birthday with her grandparents—and they gifted her with a beautiful charm bracelet, with charms for this amazing adventure we’re on: the Colosseum, the Leaning Tower, and a gondola. They’ve promised to add an Eiffel Tower when we’re in Paris. We’ll have to find a Kiwi bird when we get home! As you can see, she was positively thrilled with this wonderful present. 🙂
On Thursday we were off to our final Tuscan hilltown, Siena—just twenty minutes from our rental home. We spent a lazy morning at home, arriving in town in time for our noon reservation at La Taverna di San Giuseppe. The restaurant—in a 3rd century BC Etruscan home (!!)—is also Michelin recommended, so we knew were in for a treat. And what a meal it was—eggplant starter, beef pappardelle, steak and duck entrees, and finally, the hazelnut soufflé for dessert. Delizioso!
After lunch, we turned to Rick Steves for our walking tour of Siena, exploring the central piazzas, side streets, and cathedral along the way.
And finally, back home to our own Tuscan hilltop, for our last sunset. It’s been a wonderful vacation-within-our trip!