Well, well, well… we meet again. I guess you expect me to tell you some more things about being in Italy, huh? Ok, fine, if you insist.
This past weekend proved to be most smashing, actually. Our group from Rome took three days to visit the marvelous region of Tuscany; home to Leonardo, Raphael and the other ninja turtles. Those of you who have already visited Tuscany will know how marvelous it is, and those of you who haven’t, get ready to put your envy pants on.
(Let me just apologize in advance if this post ends up somewhat long, but our trip to Tuscany was so eventful that I feel I’d be cheating you if I didn’t explain some of the finer details.)
The first thing we did was wake up… Pretty damn early, I might add. Our train from Rome to Pisa was at about 8 a.m. from Rome’s Termini station. So we all had to meet at 7:30 a.m. to make sure no one was late. Termini is about a 20-30 minute trip for me (sometimes I have to wait 10-15 minutes for the bus), which means I had to leave my home at about 7. Obviously I didn’t just jump out of bed and sprint to the bus. I needed to wake up with time to brush my teeth and wash myself a bit, because this is what people do in the morning (or at least I thought so, until I got to Rome’s train station, where it seems hardly anyone does). So, adjusting for this, I had to wake up at about 6:30 a.m.
I guess this time would be normal for a lot of people, but, as far as I’m concerned, this is a sick joke. Even in elementary and high school I didn’t always have to wake up quite this early (it was pretty close, though, which, looking back on it, is probably why I hardly learned anything). So, as you can imagine, I was very tired when I arrived for the train.
I spent almost the whole ride sleeping, as did most of the others from my group. But when we woke up, we were greeted by the Tuscan landscape, which is a far better way to do it. If I could look out and see Tuscany every time I woke up, I’d nap 17 times a day just for the view (in other words, I’d nap the same amount that I do now, but for a different reason).
Our train arrived in Pisa, where we immediately began to walk down the main road from the station. We weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere, so everyone sort of split to look at different markets and shops that were around. I’m not exactly sure why, but I opted to go into a bookstore that we were near and buy some books by Italo Calvino. I’ve only read one book of his before called “Invisible Cities”, but I liked the way it was written so much that I thought I should get some of his literature in it’s original language. (What possessed me to do it at this particular moment… I don’t know)
After trying to read some pages from these books, I came to the realization that part of what I originally liked about his writing style was not just his use of words, but that those words were translated into English. I suppose I still have much to learn before I’m fluent in Italian, because my attempts at reading Calvino were just me going: “What the hell is a pianeta!? What’s this guy talking about!?”
Allora… after wandering Pisa’s streets for a little while, we sat down to have lunch at a small outdoor pizza/pasta restaurant, where I had lasagna. It wasn’t anything to write home about (so I apologize for doing so), but I didn’t think it was awful. However, there were some in our group who said they almost gagged on it, so to each his own.
Now came the time to visit the tower.
It’s kinda funny to think that in the modern world, Pisa is best known for its leaning tower, which is an iconic and heroic symbol of failure. But, at the time it was being built, the guy who was doing it had to flee Pisa for his life. Just shows how fickle and interesting history can be. Maybe in the year 2560, students will be reading books about Steve Bartman, one of the best outfielders in American history.
So we arrived at the Piazza del Duomo, where one finds the incredible tower of human fuck-up, as well the city’s cathedral and baptistry. This was my first time ever visiting Pisa, and I was not at all disappointed by the view.
The cathedral is pretty fantastic, both inside and out. The baptistry is remarkable as well. But, of course, the main event is the Leaning Tower. Our program director had arranged for us to go to the top of the tower, which, obviously, has to be done on foot (the only person with an elevator that goes slantways is Willy Wonka). I was part of the first group to go up.
I guess I should have expected that the Leaning Tower of Pisa also had stairs that lean, but, to be honest, that idea had never really crossed my mind. So, the first few floors caught me off guard when I realized that gravity was shifting constantly as I ascended. Sometimes I was being pulled forward, sometimes I was being pulled back, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left. It was like some kind of funhouse staircase, or a scene from Inception.
We finally made it to the top, where there’s a fantastic view of the entire city (Pisa, to my surprise, is much bigger than I expected). Depending on which side of the tower you were on, you could look straight down to the ground, or look down onto the tower itself. Neither one was overly appealing, since I’m usually pretty scared of heights, but I kept my composure well enough to make it back down the stairs without a problem.
This pretty much sums up our trip in Pisa, but is only the beginning of the amazing things we did and saw in Tuscany. I should mention that we were not staying in some big hotel or, contrarily, a cheap hostel during this visit. No, that would be too normal. Because our program director (her name is Cathy and she’s great) is good friends with some people who own villas in Tuscany, we were able to stay for free on a farm just outside Lucca, where the view is unmatched.
The goats were fun, too.
Maybe I should take some time to explain just how Cathy was able to swing so much stuff for us on this trip. She is a music teacher at DePaul University and, thus, lives much of her life in Chicago. However, during the summer, she and her husband, Jànos (who’s also an amazing person. He speaks about 5 or 6 languages, knows every historical fact there is to know, and teaches computer sciences at the University of Chicago), spend three months living tranquilly at this farm in Lucca, and they’ve done so for the past 15 or so years. Needless to say, they’re in good with the owners.
For our particular accommodations, there were two “small” villas for us to stay in, as well as a pool, a pen for the goats and horses, and a seemingly infinite yard. But this is not the end of these people’s property. They also own a larger villa up the hill that was built in the 1600s, has a ridiculous garden with a pool/fountain, is surrounded by trees that are over 600 years old and has a kitchen bigger than all of my previous apartments combined.
As if this wasn’t enough, we found out when we arrived at the large villa that there wasn’t going to be any furniture for us to sit on in the main living room.
Oh, just because they were hosting an art exhibition of some of the most famous people in recent history. Apparently, this Tuscan family is important enough to have a traveling art exhibition stop by in their home.
I guess the idea of the exhibit was that, sometime in the last few decades, someone started a collection for which they would mail postcards to famous artists and have them design the card however they so wished, then they returned the postcards to join the collection.
Among the artists who took part in this project were Picasso, Warhol, Pollack, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, John Cage and many many more important figures of art, who, as you can tell, didn’t have to be visual artists to be invited to join the collection.
I don’t have any photos of the exhibit, but I know for certain that others took some pictures. So, once these are loaded to facebook and available for my theft, I’ll be sure to add them to this post.
We were given a small tour of the area, then we were invited into the kitchen to drink some wine and see how they were making the evening’s dinner. Some people even opted to help roll out the pasta or bake the pies. I just stuck to the wine and looked on from a distance.
Once everything was ready, we gathered in the dining room for our dinner… Our amazing dinner.
We started with the homemade pasta, then chicken with potatoes, followed by salad, then some pie and fruit as well as cookies that you dipped into this special wine in a shot glass.
Yeah, I know, right?
I don’t think I can say enough good things about the people who were pampering us in their villa. They offered seconds on all the food they served, which I definitely took advantage of. Whenever the wine ran out, they had more brought by their servants… or butlers… or whatever the proper term is. Actually, the second night we were there, they apologized when there was no more wine and brought in a giant case of beer.
Yeah, I know, right?
Both mornings, they served us breakfast in their pool house, which was also a limitless feast, compared to other Italian breakfasts I’ve seen. There was meat, cheese, bread, crescents, cereal, yogurt, orange juice and coffee. Again, whenever one of the offerings was spent, they simply brought more.
Yeah, I know, right?
In terms of comfort, on a scale from 1 to Bill Murray, I was definitely at a Murray for the whole weekend.
For our second day in Tuscany, we took a trip to Florence, the birthplace of Michelangelo. Maybe you’ve heard of him. I’ve visited Florence in the past, but, really, it’s not the kind of place that I could ever get used to. The city is so gorgeous that even the parts that stink of urine are worthy of an Elton John ballad (‘Goodbye yellow brick road… wait, why is it yellow?’).
Of course, we saw the major attractions while we were there: The Palazzo Vecchio, The Duomo, Piazza della Signoria. But, for me, the thing that must always be visited when in Florence is La Galleria dell’Accademia, to see the statue of David. It’s always a remarkable feeling when you walk into the museum, take a right and immediately get slapped in the face by the towering behemoth at the end of the hall.
(You may have to put your face very close to the screen to get the full effect.)
Something about standing 10 feet from the most famous sculpture in the world gives one a feeling of transcendence. It’s almost like the century in which you’re living does nothing to separate you from the millions upon millions of people who have come before and stood where you’re standing. You can almost imagine the people of the Renaissance, casting their eyes upon the naked marble man, gazing with the same awe that you gaze with now. However, there have since been people hired to yank you out of this by snapping their fingers and barking “NO PHOTO! NO PHOTO!”
At any rate, our trip to Florence was certainly a lovely one. And, I’m pleased to say that, as I had hoped, I was able to buy a nice leather jacket in the short time we were there. I’m really proud of it, too. It’s sort of a darkish-reddish-brown (I should work for Crayola, no?) And, if I may be so bold to say, I look damn good in it. Just look at these before and after pictures:
Anyways, our adventures in Tuscany continued on the final day when we took a trip to a vineyard just outside of Lucca. The guy who owns the vineyard is also a friend of Cathy and Jànos (I’m telling you, these people have the best connections) so we were able to visit and get a personal tour from the owner, who showed us the barrels in which the wine is aged and some of the grapes that they use for the juice.
The vineyard, so he says, is 100% organic and natural, in that they don’t use any kind of chemicals in the soil or on the vines, and there is no yeast added to the fermentation process. It’s natural yeast that comes with the grapes when they’re picked. We were able to drink some of their wine with the lunch they provided us, and, I have to say, that was some tasty hooch. I decided it might be a nice gesture to buy a bottle and bring it back for my host family. It’s my special way of saying: “Thanks for the bidet!”
On our final stretch through Tuscany, we went within the city walls of Lucca to explore the town a little before heading back to Rome. Lucca really seems like a nice place, aside from all the bugs that were in the air (seriously… millions). We walked around the city center for about an hour before joining up to walk along the wall that surrounds the town. It’s a very pretty thing to look at, when you see across the city from the perimeter, because the entire city is located within the wall. It doesn’t extend outward. It also seems like there are a lot of very wealthy people who live there. Some of the mansions were ridiculously nice. But, like I said, it had a serious insect problem in certain parts, and that is just something that I cannot abide.
We made our way to the train station in Lucca and caught a ride back to Florence, where another train to Rome awaited us. Actually, it didn’t await us, because it was late and not even at the tracks yet. So we had a short time to grab some McDonald’s in the station. Not a fact I’m proud of, but what’r’ya’gonna’do?
Some of us had mentioned during the trip that, somehow, after spending the weekend how we did, it almost seemed like a burden to return to Rome. You know, The Eternal City. But, now that I’ve re-situated myself in my home, it feels good to be back.
Still, the idea that anything could make Rome seem inadequate gives me a lot of anxiety about eventually returning to Alabama or even Chicago. I’m not quite sure how I’ll be able to cope. It’s like trying to use generic toilet paper after having experienced the wonders of Charmin. But, I suppose, if life’s going to give me lemons, I’ll just have to make limoncello.
Until next time,