Thursday, November 26, 2009

Viva Italia!

On Monday, we drove to the romanticized and much loved region of Tuscany, three hours from Monica's place in Faenza. It's November in Italy, and while there's no snow, overall it's cloudy, grey and foggy. However, after crossing over the Appenines, the weather immediately became sunnier and warmer. While romantics might encourage thinking this comes from the beauty of Tuscany, Monica assured me it was strictly geographical - there is simply no Po river valley in Tuscany!

We stopped first in Cortona and later, after dark, hit Montepulciano. (Side note: turns out that several scenes from the New Moon (Twilight) movie were filmed in Montepulciano. Who knew there were vampires in Italy?) We stopped at a copper smith, who made me a small bookmark while he chatted with Monica (he stamped 8 flowers on it, "One for each children" he winked) and then on to a small winery for some delicious Vino Nobile.

That night, we stayed with their friend, Pietro, who owns a small farmhouse in Gallina and had prepared wild boar stew for our visit. Being big cyclists (Monica owns a bike touring company), the next day we biked 26k through the Val d'Orcia to Montalcino. Best. ride. ever (even if I swore my undying hatred to Monica's fiance during the last 6k - an excruciatingly long 7 degree climb to the top of the hilltown. He took it in stride though - at one point, he biked and pushed me with one hand). I was rewarded at the top with a delicious meal of rabbit, polenta and Brunello wine.

That evening, the four of us headed to a small public hot spring. Having experienced the onsens of Japan, I was excited, and expecting a small hut, or place to change and wash before entering. Nope. It really was just two pools of hot water at the base of mountain, under a lamppost, next to a road, with some benches around it. It was rustic, and beautiful. A half moon and twinkling stars dangled above the valley, a few naked men lounged along the edge. I couldn't have imagined a better end to the perfect day.

After a late night of drinking Cuban rum and playing board games, we finally rolled out of bed and said goodbye to Pietro, his chickens and his lovely Tuscsan farmhouse. We found our way to Pienza and Siena, the latter being a truly gorgeous city. We crawled home, exhausted, ordered pizza from the shop round the corner. I slept for 12 hours.

I am hard pressed to remember a vacation as satisfying and relaxing as this one. When I backpacked through Rome and Florence in college, I distincly remember not liking it very much. Too many people, too much male attention, too dirty, too touristy. I keep teasing my friends that they've singlehandedly changed my perception of an entire country.

When I arrived on Sunday, Monica took me to a truffle and oil festival. As we chatted with one of the vendors (and smelled his white truffles - wow!), he found out that I'd only be here a week. "That's just enough time to make you stay longer," he said.

He's not wrong.

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