Tramping Through Tuscany

After the hot cliffs and beaches and clear blue skies of the Cinque Terre, we headed inland toward Tuscany. Our first stop was Lucca, a hot tip from our bakery friend Elanna. It’s well worth checking out.

The train ride to Lucca was short but full of interest. We passed through Cararra, home of the marble made famous (to us) by Sarah Richardson and all her decorating shows. An episode isn’t complete until Sarah picks out a slab of Cararra for a countertop or backsplash. Well, it all comes from a single mountain outside this town. We passed the white marble mountain, then through the town with work yards full of marble. Huge blocks that could be used on the Pyramids and row after row of thin slabs, ready for a kitchen or bathroom in Harbour Landing.

Then we turned inland, through tall green hills with villages wedged in between the slopes and gardens and fields in the valleys. The land was green, fertile and full of life.

Lucca itself is unique in that it has an intact city wall, surrounded by a green space and even a moat (ok, a canal) in places. The wall was designed by Leonardo da Vinci, no less, and has never been breached. From the train station outside the walls you need to find a gate through the walls to get into the old town. But the best part is the top of the walls is a long, wide, wonderful walking / running path and park. You can walk around the entire town on top of the wall, and many, many people do.

Inside the wall is an old medieval village with black slate, twisting cobblestone streets. The only change seems to be the replacement of blacksmiths with gelaterias. A stone lined canal runs through one corner of the town and feeds several public fountains. Locals line up to fill collections of glass water bottles directly from the fountains, even though the tap water is great.

There are lots and lots of bikes in Lucca. In fact, I bet the number of cyclists outnumber the cars. Our first afternoon in town we had lunch at a tiny cafeteria and watched bike after bike pull up and park at a church next door. After the 30th young woman or man rode up and parked we figured there was something going on. Something stylish because all the cyclists were very well dressed; more for a concert than a workout. Finally we realized that they were all picking up kids from the school beside the church. One by one the parents or grandparents came out of the school with a child in tow. Some kids walked beside mom’s bike, some rode on a rack in the front or the back (or both!). Some came over to the cafeteria for coffee and a cookie. It was the closest thing to when the daycare let out beside our bakery, but with bikes and it was awesome.

But there are still cars, and with all the cars, all the bikes and the complete lack of sidewalks, walking around could get treacherous. Especially near the squares with fountains and odd traffic circles. These spaces gave the best views but also had the biggest risks.

There was a cool old bakery in the middle of town that was pretty jammed full of people, but I wedged my way in and bought some bread and focaccia. The baker spoke English so we talked a bit about how it was nice to try ‘real’ focaccia, especially as I made a version at the bakery at home.

The coolest thing was that his focaccia was quite a bit different than the ‘real’ focaccia I had in La Spezia, only 30km up the road! The La Spezia version is a little thicker and quite a bit more oily. My new friend in Lucca said his was the Real focaccia, and I preferred it. But I made a note not to beat myself up so much when people tell me I don’t make a ‘real’ German Rye or a ‘real’ Sourdough loaf. There’s as many versions as there are bakers.

We wandered all around Lucca, through the town and up on the walls. Cindy’s book of walking tours gave us some nice routes so we didn’t miss a square or a church. We even paid to walk up a tower in the middle of town to see the whole town and surrounding countryside. It was beautiful. Brown-red buildings surrounded by green trees and rolling hills.

We had so much fun in Lucca that we decided to stay an extra day, in order to see their Saturday market, even though our apartment was spoken for. So we booked a room in a pension for one night and moved 300 metres to new digs.

Big mistake. That particular Saturday was a washout. As in, massive Noah style rains. The walk to our room was only three blocks but we were completely drenched. Rather than go to the market (which was cancelled anyway) we hung all our clothes to dry and, after a delicious pizza lunch, stuffed newspapers in our shoes and hoped they’d dry in our cold, damp room. Cindy’s shoes were dry enough to head out for a much needed haircut, and learned that her new favourite stylist has a cousin in Regina. No kidding! We have someone new to call when we get home now.

Damp but undefeated, we left Lucca on Sunday morning on the train for Pisa. Even without the Leaning Tower, Pisa is an interesting city. It was an ancient maritime powerhouse that collected many riches via trading and menaced the surrounding towns. Many of the castles we visited in the area were fortified to protect the citizenry from attacks from Pisa.

We checked our bags at the train station and strolled around Pisa, once again following a route from Robyn’s excellent “Walks in Italy” book. We walked up to the main square the Campo de Miracoli, and saw the famous Leaning Tower and the Cathedral beside it. All the white marble buildings in the square shone against the bright green grass of the square. It was cloudy outside, but I could imagine how the buildings would stand out against a bright blue sky too.

I soon got freaked out by the crowds of people in the square, though. It was jammed with people all doing the same thing – posing for pictures. Either selfies with those infernal sticks or three thousand people doing the exact same “hold up the tower” pose. This often required the camera person to sit on the ground, across the sidewalk from the poser, to get the angle just right. And boy did they get mad when you walked in front of them! At least the first 500 people did. Then I walked behind the posers to photobomb as many selfie shooters as I could before Cindy got mad at me and we left the square. Well, really.

The rest of Pisa outside of Campo dei Miracoli was pretty much deserted, so we had a delightful afternoon following the route in Robyn’s book. We walked up the Arno River, then crossed the bridge and walked down it. We went through Girabali square for gelato. And we found a delightful little park surrounded by restaurants for lunch. We actually went in one block to a tiny pizza restaurant where we were the only English speakers in the place. Only long tables of locals out for Sunday lunch, chowing down on pizza or these immense focaccia sandwiches, that were as big around as a pizza but three times as thick.

Full and footsore, we walked back to Pisa Centrale station, collected our bags, and hopped on our train to Florence. We had booked an AirBnb apartment just outside of the city centre, right near the tram station. We met our host Frederica, got the keys and settled in for the next four nights.

When we arrived in Florence, I realized I didn’t really know what I wanted to see there. I had always wanted to see the Duomo, that large red dome that towers over the rest of the city, but beside that, I didn’t have a lot of ideas. Thankfully, Robyn’s book came to the rescue. We spent two delightful days trekking through the streets, alleys and parks of central Florence, walking along and across the Arno River (upstream from Pisa), sitting in the delightful little squares, having gelato at Vivoli (as seen on “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having”) and walking through the large central market.

In the end, Florence provided many “bests” of the trip so far. Best espresso macchiato, from the Grand Cafe beside the Plaza San Marco. Best leather jacket hard sell, from the vendor in ‘leather alley’ (I looked fabulous, but 300 euros was way outside my budget.) Best hard sell leather bag (150 euros, still too much) from the same block of stalls. And the best loaf of bread on the trip, bar none, from Pank, upstairs at the central market.

The upstairs of the market is very interesting. It’s been turned into an upstairs food court, but from what I could tell, they are all connected. Sort of a big food family. I know I poo-pooed a similar setup in my Lisbon post, but at least this was a complement to a real market, not a replacement. And it had a real, proper bakery.

We bought a ciabatta loaf which looked nothing like any ciabatta I’d ever seen. It was baked really dark and looked more like a flat loaf of bread rather than a flatbread, if you follow me. The bakery was open for viewing so Cindy and I sat for an hour on high stools in front of the oven and watched the baker do his thing, baking off deck after deck of long pizza breads that were baked with tomato sauce, then topped by the sandwich prep baker and baked again before serving. Everything from the bread, to the baker, to the counter staff was awesome. They were all pros, 100%. We ate an excellent apricot tart and watched everyone work like a well oiled machine, like Orange Boot on our best days, then told them how great they were and headed out. Later on, when we ate the ciabatta on a church bench, we wished we’d bought more.

On our last day in Florence we caught a bus to Fiesole, a hill town just outside of the city. It had amazing views of the entire city as well as the valley around Florence, but the highlight of the day was the extensive Estruscan and Roman ruins. We walked for an hour around the excavated baths and temples before having lunch sitting in the Roman theatre, which is in good enough shape that they still hold concerts there in the summer. Then we walked through a really excellent museum where they displayed Estruscan, Roman and Longobard (ie, Lombards, the Germanic folks who came after the Romans) artifacts that have been found at the site and around Fiesole. This included several Longobard tombs which were exhumed and moved to the museum intact. A little creepy but extremely interesting.

From Florence we moved on to San Gimignano, a small medieval hill town in the heart of Tuscany, where I am writing this now. It took a little doing to get here – a train to Poggibonsi, 11km away, then a somewhat harrowing bus ride up the hill to the gates of the old town. But from the moment we got off the bus we’ve been in love. It’s simply stunning here.

I never really got those Scotiabank RRSP ads where 50-somethings exclaim “we can afford that villa in Tuscany!” but now I do. This is serious upper-middle class adult Disneyland here, except it’s real. High, rolling hills all around you that are impossibly green. Vineyards off in every direction, growing Chianti grapes or the lovely Vernaccia white wine grapes. Rows of tall, thin cyprus trees lining the country lanes. Olive orchards where there aren’t grapes. Red brick villas dotting the countryside. An beautiful wild poppies in the every ditch and around every fence post. Holy cow it’s beautiful.

We spent two sunny days exploring the hills around San Gimignano. We’d leave after breakfast and descend down from the town, through vineyards and past impressive villas, stopping only to admire the views, take a few more pictures, and wonder if some of the old stone shacks were for sale.

The first day was a winding 14km hike to the neighbouring town of Certaldo. We followed a meandering route along a ridge line through the hamlet of Pasole before finally descending down to Certaldo. It was a gorgeous walk till we hit the town; the final kilometre or so was along a busy highway. Then we rode a very cool funicular up to the old townsite for gelato and more exquisite views. Then we hopped the train to Poggibonsi and the bus back to San Gimignano, before heading off for our best meal of the trip. We had a lovely traditional Tuscan meal of charcuterie, pasta, Vernaccia wine and dessert on a patio overlooking the valley we walked through earlier in the day. It was a big splurge for us, but oh so worth it.

Our second walk, on May Day, was intended to take on a loop past the hill town of Ulignano. It started off brilliantly, descending down through a forest of poplars and pine trees, past acres of vineyards and the winery itself. But then the route branched off to a dirt trail that was described as ‘treacherous when wet.’ And it sure was. The road was all mud from a big overnight rain, and the soil was heavy clay like back home, the kind that would suck off your rubber boot on the school playground. We tried our best but abandoned the trail before we hit the bottom of the valley; better that than to lose our shoes.

Bees! This pic’s for you, Ed!

So we tried to follow the highway to Ulignano and retake our trail on high ground, but it was too much. Too much traffic on the narrow highway was No Fun, so we retraced our steps through the forest and climbed back up to San Gimignano. I think we walked twice through the best part of the hike anyway, so it was all good. We even saw two tours of horseback riders and two crazy mountain bikers, who were descending the hill we were climbing as fast as they could. It must’ve been fun, because one biker rode back up the long, steep, gravel road and screamed past us a second time.

On Saturday, in between our two hikes, we hopped on the bus and took a day trip to Siena. Yet another gorgeous Roman town with high walls, a huge cathedrals and narrow, winding streets. We don’t seem to be getting tired of that yet!

Siena was a really big deal in the 12th and 13th century, and the architecture shows that. They were competing with Florence to see who could have the best art and the most ornate cathedrals. (San Gimignano, by comparison, took the more literal approach and tried to build the most and tallest towers.) Siena did a pretty good job, I must say.

But the best structure for me was the soccer stadium just outside the old town and right beside the bus station. It was lovingly nestled in a bowl in a little valley, surrounded by trees and a few bleachers. Siena plays in the lower leagues in Italy but they have a top tier stadium in my books.

We were planning on eating in for our last night in San Gimignano but at the last minute I made a reservation at another traditional Tuscan restaurant on a quiet side street, away from the tour groups. We had a final amazing meal in Tuscany, more meats, more pasta, and a roast rabbit with a sauce containing chocolate and wine. Delicious! A perfect end to a perfect stay in Tuscany.

A while back, Cindy’s mom said she was worried that we’d find a place that was so beautiful that we would just pull up stakes and move there. Well you could do worse than Tuscany, that’s for sure. I’d need to make new money to get there, but it sure is a worthy goal. The views, the climate, the food and the wine are simply wonderful.

And the crazy thing? Today we’re taking a train to Bologna. Not in Tuscany, but by all reports it’s the ‘food capital’ of Italy. How can it be better than this?