Week Twelve - Firenze! 09/14/2010
“We don’t build cars, we build dreams.” - Enzo Ferrari
Day Seventy-Nine September 4th
Goodbyes are always hard, especially when you don’t really know when you will see someone again. For Adele this has been an especially good time as she and Mira have been playing together pretty much non-stop since we arrived. It has been nice for her just to be a kid again. Staying and viewing how folks live the day-to-day life here has been a great experience for all of us.
You realize that where and how you stay really shapes your view of the place you are visiting: the apartment in Paris, our HOW and camping, the hotel stays and now staying with friends in country. All very different from one another: all impacting us in different ways.
It proves you need to think about how you are going to tackle travel and the type of experiences you want. I think cities are best served via apartments (if you have a week or more) and/or hotels (for shorter stints). When exploring the countryside camping is best hands-down. It’s a great way to cover distance and get a big picture. For immersion into culture and language stay with friends or in cities and hang for a while without pressure to move on or do anything. Here you need to put the agenda aside and let the days take on a life of their own. We like them all and are thankful we have the opportunity for such variety.
After our goodbyes we load up and move on. Always moving on. Our drive is a long one stretching from roughly Stuttgart to Lago di Garda. Everything moves along at around 140kph until we hit Innsbruck. Then the bumper-to-bumper traffic begins.
For some reason (we think it’s a tollbooth on the Italian side) the traffic is backed up for hours on end. We crawl along in second gear seemingly forever inching our way into the Dolomites. The borders come and go, license plates change from G to A to I, speed limits and protocol go up and down. All of it is in three quarter time.
Around 6p, after seven hours in the car, we bail on Lago di Gardo saving the rest of the trip for tomorrow and stop off in Bolzano set in a deep valley way up in the Dolomites. We are at the very top of Italy looking down from on high. Out hotel, Stadt Hotel Citta, sits on the corner of a cobblestoned square complete with cafes, a statue, a grand fountain and plenty of Italians. Finding the place seems crazy to an American from So Cal but the Italians take no notice of someone driving on the insanely narrow pedestrian walk streets. What’s a few wrong turns between friends?
This is our first night of living our “hotel” lifestyle so we do what anyone would and bring everything we own in with us. It takes two main trips and one or two more before nights end to get settled. It’s clear we need a new packing strategy. Vince loves hotels so he is talking non-stop and moving constantly. Adele is crashing from the long drive and once again leaving friends and moving on. Teri and I just sort of sit and try and get our bearings, shuffling from bag to bag looking for stuff.
A big change going forward will be meals. We pretty much need to eat three meals a day out since we no longer have refrigeration and/or storage space. On the surface this may seem like a luxury to some but when you have kids and are used to setting your own schedule it is not as exciting as it seems. Plus, it is much more expensive.
At Lonely Planets recommendation we head out to our hotel’s restaurant on the square. It is so good to be back in the city. People are strolling arm in arm. Couples and families, children and old folks all mix together creating a collage of daily life here. Drama is everywhere: in facial expressions, cadence and volume of conversation, dress and appearance. It is a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere, one that we intend to enjoy to the fullest.
Day Eighty September 5th
The unplanned places we encounter along the way tend to be some of the best, probably due to the surprise factor. The Messner Mountain Museum is definitely one of these places. Any serious armchair mountaineer knows of Reinhold Messner. The holder of many “firsts” including the summit of Everest without oxygen, a feat considered impossible at the time. It seems he is actually Italian and that he cut his climbing teeth here in the Dolomites outside of Bolzano.
To celebrate climbing and the highest peaks around the world he has built five museums set in historic castles up in this neck of the woods. The one we are at this morning is his centerpiece sitting just outside of town. It is fantastic. Thought out the rooms of the old castle and peppered though out the grounds are relics of his climbs and commentary on the expeditions.
There are oil paintings of peaks and climbers, prayer flags and cairns, statues, symbols and mythology from the seven summits, an extensive photo collection, music and burning incense. These are all interwoven to tell a story of truly epic adventure.
Like the Vikings, Kon Tiki and Fram this museum speaks to us and flames the desire for adventure. By lunchtime Adele and Vince are climbing rocks and discussing repelling technique, Teri is recounting her Rainer summit and I am eyeing my Vasques wondering if they are up for some hard-core altitude. Perhaps Nepal will find its way back on the itinerary.
The drive south into Italy reminds us of the fjords only with land in the ravens instead of water. The Dolomites are a beautiful range, well worth exploring someday. They are lighter in color than the Alps, not quite as steep but still big and broad just the same, almost creating a buffer from the North, shielding Italy from the rest of Europe, or vice versa.
Our destination this evening is the town of Sirmione on Lago di Garda. Sirmione is known as an historic, ancient town on an islet tucked into the lake where Italians come to relax and vacation. How great does that sound? It’s is all going along fine until we get to the part about checking in with the police before we enter the “old section” that is “limited to hotel and pedestrian” traffic.
There is a barrier blocking the drawbridge, barely visible behind all the people. It is 2p on a Sunday and the town is teaming with people. They are everywhere. I cannot express the intense fear and disbelief that accompanies a nod from the policeman as he waves us on. No kidding, even as I write this, I still cannot believe he told us to drive head on into the crowd.
Forget about how narrow the streets are; forget about the labyrinth of blind twists and turns, the tunnels passing through buildings and an impossible to understand blinking traffic light system. Forget about the cars coming at you, thousands of people pressed against the walls for fear of being crushed, the baby carriages taking up too much room on the sides and the old people walking obliviously down the center.
Think of an “intermediate” sized Skoda (we really should have tried to squeeze into the Fiat 500 again), with German plates (thankfully, since they assume the Germans will just run them over) a failing GPS system (the roads are too small and narrow to get a proper signal), a really bad map (from the tourist office used as a walking guide) and us, nervously inching forward.
It was the worse drive of my life and an excruciating ten minutes that I hope never, ever to repeat.
When we get out on the other side of hell we find our Hotel Olivia, a pretty postcard of a retreat at the far end of the island. The lobby is markedly Italian with marble floors and columns in greens, pinks and yellows. The average age of the people spread out on the white and red furniture is about 110 years old, save for a few middle age men with their mothers. It’s all very trippy, like some kind of weird 1950s Italian movie.
The best thing to do in these situations is swim. So we head to the pool to let out some steam and try and relax. It is deathly quiet with a bunch of old brown (perhaps they prefer “golden”) people that look like they have been here forever. I feel like we are on display.
These are the old “golden” people that you may want to be like when you grow up. Someone once referred to them as raisins, a perfect description for the occasion. They are so incredibly tan, wear heavy gold bracelets and chains, big baggy boxer swim trunks and hats to block the sun. They clearly don’t give a dam what anyone thinks about anything. They just stand around in the cold Jacuzzi and talk in hushed tones for hours on end, hands gesturing and moving about, occasionally laughing. They are genuinely content passing by the days and hours at the Hotel Olivia.
At 5p the pool guy rings a bell and people appear out of nowhere. It is almost comical to see everyone line up, grab a cup and a biscuit and then sit and chat at the poolside tables. They all move from lying horizontally on the lounge chairs to sitting upright at tables. Its weird and we have no idea what is going on, but everyone seems to be there. I assume coffee, the kids are running around looking for ice cream and I think Teri is counting on a glass of the local red. Instead we get tepid English Breakfast.
Dinner is fun. We find our restaurant just off the main drag and end up sitting outside in a courtyard next to a lemon tree. It is a meal of tomato and mozzarella, pasta and the local catch of the day. Teri samples the local wines, Adele and I continue our quest of the perfect water “with gas” and even Vince gets in the game with an affinity for the local “flat” water. All is well.
We are home to bed around 10p, early for Italy, for school starts tomorrow.
Day Eighty-One September 6th
Up to a very slow day. They have a nice buffet here with good strong coffee, much needed to fight off the clouds and rain this morning. Seems the weather has followed us. Not so good for our pool plans.
The kids start school. We are home schooling both Adele and Vince and are going to start with an hour or so each morning and see how it goes. Teri has the first shift so I head down to the lobby to write up journal notes. Two hours later the kids emerge full of energy and excitement. They both love school.
Not much else happens. We wander around the town, it is much more enjoyable on foot, ducking into places for both lunch and dinner. There is some pool time between the rainy spells and some running around and playing in the front yard.
We do learn that the new computer has actually arrived in Germany but our friend is now off on vacation until the 11th so we have no way to resend it anywhere. We are beginning to feel that logistics are near impossible on the road and shipping anything is a potential fiasco.
It is slow day that just fades back into night.
Day Eighty-Two September 7th
Today is much the same as yesterday. The weather is unchanged with clouds and some rain now and again. We have decided to move on tomorrow, several days early, to try and find sunshine and a more kid-oriented hotel. Without the pool there is nothing for them to do here.
After school we all walk over to explore some ruins at the very point of the peninsula. It turns out this is the largest private residence uncovered from the early Roman times. It stretches out, expanding around each corner and falling down into the sea. The upper section, a vast flat area on the top of a hill, is actually the main floor of the original villa. As we wander down we go through porticos, bedrooms, kitchens, support structures, pathways, all kinds of chambers, columns and staircases. It ignites the imagination.
Adele and Vince pose as statues, climb the rock walls, search for yet to be discovered “artifacts” along the stone pathways, pick olives from ancient trees and dream of being the family of the original owners. We discuss what life must have been like in those times, the good and the bad, given them a real life history lesson. These home school field trips will be tough to beat!
In the evening we find a comfortable out of the way local place for a quick meal. Vincent sits outside on the step “performing” and getting his photo taken by people passing by. No fear of the limelight with this one. By 10p of so we are finally back home and off to sleep.
Day Eight-Three September 8th
Fearing the drive back out of the old town we start our day early hoping to avoid pedestrian traffic. The strategy works. Despite the rain and incredible tight turns the drive is much more manageable before 9a.
There are two stops today as we travel down towards Florence, , one for Adele and one for Vince. The first one, Modena, may ring a bell if you like Balsamic Vinegar. This is the epicenter of the vinegar world. Every bottle of balsamic vinegar in the States claims to hail from here.
Adele’s favorite thing in the whole world is bread, oil and vinegar (and dad’s pasta, thank you very much). She eats it whenever possible: she takes it to school for lunch, enjoys an after school snack, before dinner, with dinner, as dinner, after dinner. She’ll even try to work it into the breakfast menu given the chance. Today we get to see how it is made!
When we get to Modena things are a bit hectic. No surprise parking is difficult and some what of a mystery. It seems people just pull in anywhere and leave their cars while they go about business. I would follow suit but with the big Europcar rental sticker on the back and German plates we fear retribution if we do the same. Eventually we do find a space that looks legit and I manage to squeeze in without setting off the car alarms in front or behind me. As I turn off the ingnition I am compelled to wave to the crowd of storekeepers keeping an ever present, watchful eye on us. “Grazie! Grazia! Tutti!”
The archway heading into the “mercato” is non-descript. The only telltale signs of life inside are the old ladies with shopping bags stuffed so full that the bread and vegetables stick out of the tops. By chance we decide to wander in and see what we can see.
It is noisy and active, crowded but manageable. The stalls lining the outer walls, the ones built into the structure, are for meats, fish and dairy, really anything that requires power for refrigeration. Those in the middle are for fruits and nuts, vegetables, baked goods, oils, vinegars, and wine. Everything you need is right here. All being picked over, scrutinized, discussed, held, bounced, smelled and tasted by the grandmothers of Modena.
It is a shame we do not have the HOW, we could have stocked up for weeks. This place is wonderful. Armed with dried fruit and nuts we move on in search of the tourist office. It has moved of course, nothing is where it is supposed to be Italy, but after several attempts we do track it down and mange to set up the balsamic vinegar tour.
They make this stuff in attics. Who knew. You kind of expect to see a factory with machines and bottles and labels and stuff. Instead you get a street address to a house in the city and a buzzer to push where a nice lady with a big smile throws open the door and invites you into to her home.
“Is this the balsamic vinegar place?” We ask. “Si! Si! Ciao! Come meet mia madre! First, we go to the attica.” Did she say meet my mother? We climb the stairs to the attic. It is all a bit confusing.
Up a flight of stairs, protected by an old attic door, sits a treasure of unimaginable beauty in the eyes of Adele Rose Carcano. It is here, where the temperatures rise and fall and the humidity can come and go, that the elements are free to work there magic on grapes to create perfection.
Azienda Agricola Marisa Barbieri has been making balsamic vinegar forever. The last fifty years they have practiced the tradition in this attic. There are barrels everywhere, well worn from years, generations actually, of use. They were part of the dowry of our host, the daughter of Marisa and the current caretaker of them.
It is hard to believe the vinegar sits for 25 or more years up here going to smaller and smaller barrels getting more and more refined and intense. One taste and you know that this is what balsamic vinegar is meant to be. If Adele could move in here she would, she is wide eyed the entire time.
After our tour of the “attic” and our lessons on production and process we are honored to meet the family matriarch in the living room. We are invited in for cake and coffee where the kids get small gifts: a hand made doll for Adele and a little toy for Vince. We communicate via hands, eyes, broken French on both sides, smiles and lots of laughter for a half hour or so. We share our travel experiences and plans, discuss recipes for vinegar dishes, exchange emails and then head on our way. If you are ever in Modena be sure and stop by.
Now we transition from slow and refined to fast and furious. You see Enzo Ferrari is from the nearby town of Maranello and to Vince, affection ado of all things built for speed, there is no finer way to spend an afternoon than appreciating Enzo’s genius.
The first thing you notice is red. Everything is red. Then it’s the “cavallino rampante” or stallion that looms over the entrance. Finally it is simply the cars. They are works of art: things of beauty. People stop and stand, as if worshiping an idol.
The lines are incredible and seductive, their steering wheels and lights make them seem alive. These are the kings of the jungle just resting for a minute before bothering to chase down prey. It is clear we are in the inner sanctum of the auto world. You want to fess up and let them know that as former Prius drivers perhaps “we are not worthy.” But it makes no difference to them. These cars ignore you unless you can write the check.
Vince is in awe. For a full twenty minutes he just sits at the center of the Formula One display and stares at the cars. At one point I wander over to check on him to see if he is OK and he can barely speak. “Look at the race cars!” is all he can manage to get out not taking his eyes off the race footage playing on big screens above the cars. I mumble something like “take all the time you need son” and then sit in silence holding his little hand. I feel like I may have been displaced in some way.
The drive into Florence is easy. We arrive late and snake our way into the “centro” just off the main square in the shadow of the Duomo. Our hotel is the Hotel Morandi alla Crocette, a medieval convent that we found in Lonely Planet. The room reflects the 400 plus years of wear and tear but the people are very nice and helpful and their recommendations are great.
After a great dinner just a few blocks away we are home and off to sleep post one of our best days in a long time.
Day Eighty-Four September 9th
Florence is one of our favorite cities. I am not sure why as it tends to be very crowded with tourists, kind of dirty and the times we have been here very hot. It must be that history is lurking around every corner: or maybe the ever-present green and white marble of the Duomo juxtaposed to the foreboding stone palaces of the Medici. Maybe it’s the people that live and work here, zipping by on scooters looking like living breathing works of art. I don’t know, but I do know it gets under your skin and stays with you for a long, long time.
The main square is jammed and the line for the top of Duomo (460+ steps) looks to be over an hour wait. For fun, we check the Tower line (416 steps) and it is wide open! Adele and I start to climb. One, two three, four….
The view up top is amazing offering three hundred and sixty degrees of beauty. You can see all the way out to the Tuscan hills, trace our drive down from the lakes, gaze off towards the sea and get a birds eye view of the city below. Well worth the climb.
When we descend we find Teri and Vince and wander aimlessly towards the Arno.
Vince announces, “I don’t have my bathing suit,” looking very concerned, “or my goggles or float,” he continues, as we stand beneath two enormous statues outside of the Medici Palace next to the Uffizi. “That’s OK Vince, we have them back at the hotel, we did not forget them.” I offer trying to placate him. “No, no, no!” he insists, “my bathing suit for right now, for the Jacuzzi.” Seriously, this stuff should be in a movie, its just priceless.
The “Jacuzzi” line is too long, best to make reservations in advance, so we walk along to the Ponto Vecchio, cross the river and head downstream searching for “one of the best playgrounds in the city” per Lonely Planet.
We may scratch Lonely Planet off the list as well if this keeps up. The playground has one swing, a slide and a few homeless guys sleeping on benches. Someone needs to create an independent, family oriented, travel guide. One with kid friendly hotels and restaurants, playgrounds, sights and experiences. It seems that in all of the travel literature, both online and in hard copy, family travel is a sub-section or and after thought. We have seen many families out and about here in Europe struggling, as we are, to find a high quality family experience. One without graffiti.
Note to self: There is a business waiting to happen for a company that gives families an alternative to the current status quo.
In the afternoon, Teri and Adele get their nails done while Vince and I play cars and Legos. Dinner is at the Admiral restaurant a block away and actually tops the meal of last night. The food here is really something. Our up coming cooking school is very much top of mind.
Day Eighty-Five September 10th
Like Paris, Florence can be judged by the quality of the Laundromats. This one is exceptional: it is clean, has soap for purchase by the load, has plenty of room to sort and fold and offers a nice place to stand around and wait while washing. Plus, I get three loads done in an hour and a half; perhaps record time so far on the TATW.
The kids are in school until 11a. When they finish we pack up and are ready to move on to our cooking school a day early to settle in and relax before we start our classes on Sunday. How exciting!
Teri struggles pulling the early arrival together dealing with the people back in Boston that booked our week but in the end it all seems to works out. We must drop our car a day early at the airport, meet our transport driver and head on out. They can offer us a regular room for tonight as a bridge to the start of the program.
As it turns out everything here is really close together. The airport is ten minutes from downtown, Tuscany starts a stones throw from there, and our villa is a short twenty minute ride.
We meet Fabrizio, the driver, at the Europcar place. He arrives in an old jeep, dirty from a recent family vacation he claims, mumbling something about the other car not being available and the real driver being delayed and speaking a thousand miles an hour in broken English and Italian. It is all very bizarre, not what we expected, but we go with it none-the-less.
The name and location of our “villa” have been a mystery. The folks in Boston don’t actually tell you where you will be they just keep saying “a villa in Tuscany”. In retrospect I now understand why. You would never sign up.
The “villa” is run by Fabrizio the driver and it is named Podere Dell’Anselmo. It sits on a rutty dirt road half way up a hill overlooking some grapes and a bunch of warehouses, not quite high enough up to avoid the sound of the road below. The place is old and disheveled, not in a charming way but in more of a very casual approach to things. The sitting area has not been swept from the dinner the night before; the office is a mess with piles of papers stacked everywhere.
On the surface things seem to be fine. They put together a lunch of meat and cheese, pour wine and water and scramble around trying to put our itinerary together. It seems at though we have surprised them with our arrival. When I ask about the winery, Fabrizio points down to a collection of steel containers around back all disconnected and sitting slightly off kilter. He says, “not to worry, we will tour tomorrow.” The radar goes up.
When we ask about the kids classes Fabrizio lets us know that actually there are not any other kids here this week and that some other adults will join us. He shrugs and keeps saying, “don’t worry, don’t worry.” We do.
The first sign of trouble is when we ask if Adele can go horseback riding and they charge us 20E to ride around a ring for an hour. We understood that for the money we have paid out horseback riding was included in the cost of service. Apparently not. Nor is there any welcome information, directions, no snacks for the kids, and no water in the room, no one to tell us how to use the Internet or find food.
There is a pool but it has no stairs for Vince so he can’t really get in, the ladder moves around when you step on it and the water is cold. The hot tub is off the kitchen and full of cobwebs. The kids want nothing to do with it. The play area has one broken plastic slide and an old plastic playschool playhouse. It is all sketchy at best. For the kids sake we make the best of things and forge on. Besides, there’s no one here to talk to anyway.
At dinner we meet young couples from Belgium and Germany and a young Australian women traveling alone. It turns out that the couples are not in cooking school, they booked on the Internet when searching for a place to stay, and they had no idea classes are available. Really.
The Australian woman has been to the cooking school and she seems happy though her perspective maybe very different than ours. We are hopeful that things will work themselves out tomorrow.
It is off to bed with a growing concern that perhaps this is all a con.