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Highlight Italy: Florence, Tuscany and Pisa


It’s early when we get on the train in Rome to go to Florence. We are also hungry and for some reason, regardless of the time of day, I will crave an Amtrak cheeseburger when I board a train. Here’s a secret: If you ever crave an Amtrak cheeseburger you should probably seek help, immediately. A quick nap, rolling hills passing by, and rather quickly we arrive in Florence. Across from the train station we are greeted with a McDonald’s. Interesting is that there are no Starbucks in Italy. With no hesitation or discussion we grab a taxi and travel approximately 500 feet to our hotel. Our hotel is a Best Western that has to be one of the nicest of the chain, located a stones throw from The Duomo, and complete with a rooftop terrace and nightly wine tasting.

It’s still early so we leave our luggage and head to The Duomo and we grab a quick breakfast (ham and cheese sandwich for breakfast? Why Not?) and tour the inside of the chapel and do NOT wait in line to climb stairs to the top. Initial impression of Florence: Lots of tourists and lots of children. Around the corner from the Duomo area is a street with several pizzerias, including one named O’ Vesuvio which is where The Jersey Shore gang is currently filming and “working”. This particular day it appeared they were filming. We came to this conclusion from the shaved head security outside and the losers signing release forms in the side alley which could only look more degrading (and regrettable) if the clipboard said Taxi Cab Confessions.

The Piazza della Signoria is where you will find replica statues, including David as well as several museums surrounding the area. We gawk and then go to La Terrazza at La Rinascente, a rooftop terrace overlooking The Duomo and city of Florence. We drink wine and eat pasta and drink a little more wine and then go back and take another look at the statues and then walk through the markets where there is a wild boar. Put a coin in the boar’s mouth, if falls into the grate below you will someday come back to Florence. If not, a man comes out and cuts you with a knife. Actually that is not true; actually I don’t think any of it is true. With more time to kill before our reservation to see David at Museo de Accademia we decide it is time to try this must have Gelato that we see on every corner of this city. We order a small chocolate to share. It doesn’t take long to see why everyone (who isn’t smoking) is eating gelato. Then it happens. The ice cream is messy so Beth reaches in her bag for a “Wet Ones” wipe to clean off the ice cream from her face and hands. Instead she grabs an OFF mosquito repellent wipe (I am allergic to mosquitoes) and wipes her hands and face. Well it doesn’t take long before there is a mild allergic reaction and we are running down the street trying to find a bathroom. After stops at McDonald’s, a pharmacy, and several F bombs we arrive at the museum. Here’s a secret: Don’t wipe your mouth with OFF! Here’s another secret: Get your tickets ahead of time for a reserved time slot, or else you won’t get in. We go in and take pictures of David. Here’s another secret: Pictures are not allowed, but they aren’t really watching that closely. Is David as impressive as heard? It’s pretty close. The features are astounding and there is a presence to this statue that is missing in others. I have yet to rank the art I have seen in my lifetime, but when I do I will definitely put David ahead of the Mona Lisa. Italy 1 France 0.

Lost again, we end up by Ponte Santa Trinita, a bridge built in 1252 that has houses built into the side and shops lining the inside. We cross, drink wine and watch birds land on tables and knock off glasses, crashing to the ground into many shards. Our dinner reservation is at a restaurant called Golden View, given because of the view of the Ponte Santa Trinita and no relation to Golden Showers. It is really a bad name for a great restaurant that pours Prosecco as you wait for you table. We enjoy excellent pasta, chicken, and vegetables along with lots of wine and a waiter who may be a little bit insane. At this point we have realized how to get back to our hotel – follow the giant MARTINI sign – which is easy to remember. After dinner we walk through Piazza della Republlica and drink more Prosecco and then find a small café near our hotel for one more glass of Prosecco. At this point we have cut back the attempts at the language to Gratzie and Prego (Thanks and Your Welcome) except for when drinking, continuing to rape the language, often to laughter. It is late and we have to get up early because we have a car picking us up for wine tasting in Tuscany, followed by a trip to Pisa. So we have one more glass of Prosecco.

After our diversions we are armed with now over 130lb of luggage due to increasing souvenir purchases we arrange for a taxi and he drives us 500 feet from our hotel to the train station where we are headed to Venice. Important to note that up to this point I have not seen one ponytail.

TUSCANY (Day Trip Through the Chianti Region)

Our driver is late. We are waiting in front of the Best Western pondering whether our driver, Michele, is male or female and also realizing the large number of Silver Mercedes vans that are in the area. Michele (male) shows up and begins driving fast, leaving the city of Florence. On the way he discusses Chianti wine and then drives even faster (unsure if there is a link between discussing Chianti and Italian driver arousal – hoping we don’t find out). The valleys are vast with rolling hills, olive trees, and grapes. If the car is moving too fast and you miss the view, it’s okay, just look again and you will see another picturesque image. After 40 minutes the Castello di Verrazzano vineyard comes into focus. It looks like a distant castle, surrounded by miles of grapes. To make sure we don’t miss the start of the tour, Michele pushes down on the gas, flying around 90 degree turns with cliff like sides until we eventually navigate the winding roads into the winery area. We run (Michele may have picked a gate lock) and catch up with the tour that has just started.

The first room showcases wine they manufacture for chapels and the Vatican, Pope wine. We walk through the fermenting rooms and more cave-like areas full of barrels of mostly Chianti wine. When asked why the older barrels are more round versus the new ones more oval the answer is simply: “Because they fit through the door!” Life is simple on the vineyard. In addition to wine they make olive oil and lead us into rooms containing vintage olive oil and wine collections that have dust that appears to date back 100 years. The tour is highlighted by the Chianti tasting that includes Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Reserve, and Super Tuscan wines. It’s before noon when we leave and are nicely buzzed already thanks to the ample tasting.

For the next 45 minutes Michele is driving fast around sharp turns while occasionally taking calls on his cell phone and checking email. The endless hills and greenery and postcard like shots appear to only change slightly each time you grab an eyeful. The second stop is Castello di Fonterutoli for more Chianti and then we are back on the road headed to San Gimigano, a medieval town that is known as medieval Manhattan because of its concrete towers. There is a quick diversion to see the Castle of Monteriggioni another small medieval area where 50 people still live today. Given the small quarters and lack of things to do it seems implausible that anyone would live there, then again, I look out into the Tuscan country and find it implausible that anyone would NOT want to live there. So I’m pretty confused. One thing we didn’t count on was that drinking Chianti and then driving for long periods of time makes a person VERY tired. By the time we hit San Gimigano we are both beat as we navigate the small alley like walk ways and take pictures with the towers and sprawling Chianti region to our backs. By the time we get back to the car we are running late and Michele once again begins driving very fast, only slowing down to grab his cell phone or talk about Siena where he lives. It was no secret that our tour guide was disappointed that Siena was not on our list as well as the fact that we were trying to squeeze so much into one day. When we asked him to take us to the train station so we could catch a train to Pisa, his response? “Why not!”

PISA

Running late from the Tuscan road trip we run into the train terminal, hit the “fast” something ticket machine and sprint to find the track empty, having to wait another 30 minutes for the next train that is delayed because it is a local train and regardless of the country you live in, if you have a “local” train it is always going to be delayed. Once we board it gets worse. There is no heat, the people are loud and angry and HOT, and it is looking like we are going to miss our reservation to go up into the leaning tower. As soon as the train starts, it stops. Starts again, and then stops again. It is getting darker which also means the “get a picture of the leaning tower like you are holding it up” may no longer be an option. Apparently this is not an option for Beth as she is willing the train to keep moving. Each time the train stops the conductor speaks something in Italian which leads to “Mama Mia!” chants and we can tell by the tone these are not good Mama Mia’s. Going forward I will always associate the phrase “Mama Mia” with shit going down. With seemingly everything working against us the story actually has a happy ending.

The train arrives one hour late, we hop into a taxi who takes us right to the leaning tower of Pisa and accompanying Duomo that runs parallel to a large park like field and a street of restaurants. Still light out we take our “holding up the tower of Pisa” photos and then go to the ticket area to inquire about our now expired tickets. No problem, we are put into the next group where we go up into the tower and look out.

More pictures and then a quick dinner at a restaurant called the New York Café where we eat Pizza in Pisa with tower in view despite the asshole neighboring restaurant’s attempt to block the view with umbrellas. Here’s a Secret: Even in Pisa there are douche bags.

The train back is rather uneventful which is to say there are no Mama Mia’s and we are back in Florence within an hour, clutching onto the camera containing the photos of us holding up the leaning tower of Pisa.

David S. Grant is the author of several books. His latest novel, “BLOOD: The New Red” is now available from Silverthought Press. For more information go to http://www.silverthought.com/blood/ Follow David on Twitter: @david_s_grant

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