Saturday, September 1, 2012

Travels in Italy - Day 4 - Leaving the Big City

As much as I love the big city and all the excitement it entails, I have to admit that what I love best about being in Europe is being in the countryside. I felt this way in France and Spain, and on the Greek Isles, if that counts. Of all the cities that we’ve been to, I liked Paris the best, maybe because I’ve been there the most and feel the most comfortable speaking French. Even still, one of the best trips we ever took was in the South of France, in Provence. I just loved visiting all the small towns throughout the countryside. They were so beautiful and filled with history, and the people have always been so nice. I’ve mentioned this before, but the small towns in Europe are nothing like the small towns in the US, they are just so much more cosmopolitan and not backwards in any way. I guess we’re just visiting the right ones, but the small towns in Europe seem to be more welcoming of outsiders.

Either way, on Day 4 in Italy, it was time to catch the train out of Dodge and hit the countryside. Once we were out of town, our plan was to rent a care and head deep into the heart of Tuscany. Our eventual goal was to get to Venice, but in between we are going to stop in Siena, the other heart of the Renaissance, and maybe Umbria.

The train was an adventure in and of itself, as you might imagine. Florence is a pretty big town and a big tourist attraction, so there are a lot of people coming and going. The train station was bustling, though nothing compared to Penn Station or Gare de Lyon. What made it tricky was that we had to get our tickets at the automated kiosks, and of course we ran into problems. For whatever reason the machine wouldn’t take our card, and we had to try about a dozen times until it worked. Meanwhile, half of Florence is standing in line behind us.

The train system in Europe is simply amazing, and something I wish we had in the US, because it sure beats driving. The trains were clean and comfortable, and it’s just fun riding in a train, especially for kids. R picked up some sandwiches and pastries, and we had a nice lunch en route. What’s also nice about being on the train is that everybody takes it, so you get a good cross section of locals and tourists, which makes it fun.

It took us about 2 hours to get to a small town called Chiusi, which of course I’d never heard of, and rent a car. Even though this town was tiny and in the middle of nowhere, again, it was charming and neat, with all sorts of restaurants and boutiques. I thought it would be nice to even stay there a night. In Italy, not unlike Spain, they seem to shut down for a couple of hours in the afternoon to have their siesta, so when we arrived in Chiusi, the rental car place was closed, so we sat and waited, but not for long.

We got into our car and headed into the countryside. The Tuscan countryside is beautiful, very reminiscent of Provence, and for that matter, Spain. I guess it makes sense. It’s actually more hilly than I expected, with beautiful farms dotting the countryside and olive and grape vineyards everywhere. This region is famous for its wines, so there is ample opportunity to have a glass or two.

Now I’m not a fast driver (I just play one on TV), especially when the roads are windy and unfamiliar, and I’ve noticed that drivers in Europe are not only fast, but aggressive. They don’t give a second thought to riding you and then passing around blind turns. Crazy. I was glad to make it to our B&B.

We are currently staying at the Tenuta Santo Pietro near Pienza, and I think it’s one of the nicest, if not the nicest, places we’ve ever stayed in Europe. It’s so beautiful, and I now realize that to truly experience the beauty of Tuscany, you have to park the car or get off the train and spend some time here. We arrived in the afternoon, were show to our room, and we spent some time just wandering around. The place is a 13th century farmhouse that has been renovated into a B&B, and the place is incredible. Just beautiful everywhere you go, and best of all, there’s a pool, which is key when traveling with kids. There are acres of plum, olive, and grape orchards on the property, and we at fresh figs right off the tree.

The owner is Italian but speaks perfect English, which makes me think he’s spent time in the States. Whatever be the case, it’s really beautiful here, and it’s nice to be out in the countryside.

More later, but until then, thanks for reading.

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