We were up early on Thursday to make sure we could walk to our pick up point should everything turn pear-shape with the taxi booking. We needn’t have worried. The taxi company phoned and in broken English confirmed which taxi numbered vehicle would be collecting us, and it had already been despatched. Our taxi turned up early but we were ready.
Rome at 6:30am is very quiet, almost eerie. We arrived far too early and no one else was around. We decided to go for a walk around the block and in doing so realised just how close we were from Rome Termi. And from there the distance from our apartment. I still wouldn’t have wanted to walk with the suitcases in the heat, but it was do-able. Still we escaped the one probable “con” at the station (the only place Massimo said tourists needed to be on the lookout), although one could argue the taxi driver did a decent job of robbing us 😉
We didn’t know what we should be on the lookout for at the meeting point but began to see couples arriving, and eventually I spotted someone holding the Walks of Italy sign. The shuttle bus turned up and we were quickly seated in the taxi. The first thing our tour guide asked was “does anyone get car sick”. It was at this point I realised that going through Tuscany might involve a few windy roads. Instead of the seats we had selected I moved up closer to the front where there would be less motion from the drive.
Our group included only 7 people. There was a younger couple from Wisconsin who had been travelling the world over the past year (and loved NZ, especially Lake Tekapo, and admitted if they could re-visit one place they’d been to, it would be NZ), a slightly older (than us) couple from California who had already spent 4 weeks in Rome, and a lady from Kentucky USA who was travelling on her own during University holidays. As well as Marta (our official guide), Andrea (guy, I can’t get Word to put the doofy above the a) was along for the day as experience as he was training to be a guide. And then there was our driver whose name I never heard, but he was close to retirement age and was a very good driver. Both Marta and Andrea had spent time studying overseas, Marta in Nottingham, and I don’t know if I heard where Andrea had been, I just recall he often mentioned Germany.
So that was out cosy little group. The shuttle bus seated 15 at the back so we had plenty of room to spread out. Now when I say spread out, I don’t mean sprawl. Rich (older couple) was a big, tall guy. Adam (younger couple) was probably slightly taller. Rich was sandwiched between rows whereas Adam had more room being the first row behind the driver’s bench seat. There was nowhere Rich could sit that provided a little more room. Only my seat would have been better for him. I had the first single seat on the door side, so I had all that entry space. I felt pretty guilty, but I knew that if I began to get car sick it would be unpleasant for everyone.
The night before, when talking to Massimo about our Tuscany tour, he looked at the description of where we’d be going and said it would take 2 hours to reach Pienza. Not surprisingly, I was mentally geared up for 2 hours of travelling, so it came somewhat as a surprise the journey was going to be 3 hours which would be split up by a short stop half way to stretch our legs and take a toilet break, and for those that needed it, a coffee.
Marta spoke very briefly as we crossed into the Tuscany region and made mention of the volcanic rock the little town was built on. Apart from that our tour went in silence, for three. whole. hours.
During the windy bits of the trip I closed my eyes. It’s not something that has worked well for me in the past, but given I was weary from travelling I managed to snooze a little off and on, and kept my eyes closed to avoid looking at the sheer drops of the road we were travelling (yes I caught a glimpse when I opened my eyes, but that was not to be repeated).
We arrived at Monticchiello and got out to again stretch our legs and take in the surroundings. This is where the movie Under The Tuscan Sun was filmed. It’s a place that has strict bylaws about the buildings and how the land is to be preserved. You can only live there by having something to sell, it might be cheese or bread, or some other produce, but you have to sell something. The land is not in any way developed, nor is it allowed to be. It’s the only place that exists like this. Other than the missing industrial buildings, on first glance, at the distance we were, you wouldn’t know whether the land had been cultivated in any way. I’m expect it’s obvious in the food grown here. The shop was unfortunately closed for the day. One of our tour party asked where the centre of the township was. Marta explained it was in fact the little shop we’d stood outside.
Off we went, our next stop was the township of Pienza. Massimo had said this was the place of very good cheese, so we knew to expect that. It didn’t take too long to reach Pienza and we stopped first to look at ceramics. The lady who owned this shop is in some way related to Marta but I can’t recall if it’s her Aunt or not. It was a very interesting visit. We learnt about the Pope, the different layers of soil in the ground, the underground tunnels and the well. I’d say the store was about the coolest place to be without any air conditioning. Basically the shop was carved out of the side of the ground.
We stopped at the Cheese shop and had several samples of cheeses and a balsamic vinegar/truffle concoction that was dabbed over the portions of cheese. We also got to taste a very nice balsamic vinegar, in fact two different ones of different ages. The cheese we tried was the same type, but different ages. We first sampled 3 months, 6 months and 12 months. There was cheese discs there in the shop aged 2 years and more. The 6 month old cheese was our favourite, along with the 6 month balsamic vinegar. We got some of each to take with us to Hove for when we stayed with family in a few days.
We walked a few paces to the church. One of the things spoken about during our discussion at the pottery place as the land condition the church was built on. When the church was built there was some mention the stability of the land wasn’t going to last the distance and would subside. The Pope at the time decided that the problem would only become evident in 100 years and so wasn’t fazed by it at all. I’m not sure what he expected to happen after his time, but it seems he never expected life beyond 100 years. When we entered the church the place looked fine, but the closer you walked toward the alter the more it became obvious the building slipped away. There was a large crack running from one side to the other where the subsidence began. This was one of the first churches we’d been in where wood carving was seen. Yet another skill used in creating beautiful churches.
We strolled outside and had an amazing view across Tuscany. It’s hard not to love the view. And in many ways it made me wonder about how tourists view New Zealand. We often hear how much they love our wide open green spaces and native forests, but I was pretty much impressed with what I was seeing and I live in a country that many people love to visit.
Back onto the bus and we were heading off to the organic farm for lunch. They were expecting us and again we had an amazing view from the outside dining table set up for our group. While I was very pleased all the ingredients came from the farm, I was having a hard time accepting the price of using no pesticides. The flies! I’m telling you they were everywhere, and I’m not talking just a couple. There were 50 or so. No I didn’t count them, but they were swarming all over the food, they were all over my arms, they were all over everyone. It was pretty gross actually. You’re served this lovely fresh organically grown fruit only to have flies sitting all over it. You couldn’t swat the fly away and it would be on its way pestering another table, it and its 50+ friends were just slightly inconvenienced by the swatting and returned immediately you drew your hand away. I guess I want my cake and to eat it too. I want my food to be grown/farmed locally and free of pesticides (when it’s affordable) but I do NOT want to eat my food hounded by persistent flies.
First up was freshly baked bread with balsamic vinegar and oil provided for dipping. We moved onto a fresh green salad, nothing fancy, but it was enjoyable (honestly I was concerned that taking a bite might also land me unwanted protein thanks for a fly) and since we’d not really hard much in the way of veggies I was very happy to overlook the flies that were all over it and everything else. You don’t want to know how many flies you can fit around the top of a bottle of balsamic vinegar. We were also served roasted eggplant with roasted zucchini with fresh ricotta cheese on the side. I was quite determined to try everything and I did. And it was actually quite enjoyable, much better than I expected.
Moving on from the fresh greens we were served a cold pasta dish. This I guess was the disappointment of the food. It was really lacking in flavour which surprised me. Given there were things sprinkled over it, and it had pesto as well, it really wasn’t very flavourful. Mr Fussy ended up sprinkling extra stuff on his. I’m not sure what the dried mix was that sat on the table, but he sprinkled it liberally in order to get some flavour from the pasta.
Lastly came the “dessert”. Naturally this was to be the best part of the meal for me. We were served a chocolate biscotti biscuit (with flaxseed) and an array of different cheeses. The gentleman server explained all the cheeses and in which order we should eat them. I guess he thought we’d muck it up since he proceeded to serve each person with the cheese in a semi-circle around the plate to help work out the order. It was a good thing he did, but the time everyone was served we’d all forgotten which of the condiments suited which of the cheeses. I quite enjoyed eating cheese with honey. I’ve never done that before. There was also a pear and cinnamon “jam” and something else that had lemon with it. They all tasted good to me with all the cheeses I tried. I didn’t try the really soft cheese that appeared to have an outer “crust” of volcanic ash or maybe straight up mold.
All the while there was both red and white wine available and everyone was having a pleasant meal. I did think it was a very long lunch. I wasn’t sure how long it was meant to take, but it seemed to be drag on longer than I was comfortable with. Still I get fidgety if I sit too long.
We had a quick stroll around the farm buildings with some having a look at the donkeys and other animals. I’d already had my share with the little pigs that were lounging under the table (and sniffing everything with their dirty snouts). As cute as they were they were a little too inquisitive and people were having to rescue their bags and whatnot that had been sitting on the ground since the pigs wanted to pretty much eat anything, or at least give it a proper sniff before deciding the contents held nothing of interest to them.
Once back in the shuttle we were headed to the vineyard. This is a vineyard that has a DOCG or something like that. It means the wine itself cannot be reproduced anywhere else in the world. The flavours of the wine come from the ocean breeze (the ocean being hidden from all view and a long way off), the minerals in the soil and the weather conditions. The vineyard only produces a red wine. I don’t drink (normally) and Mr Fussy isn’t a big fan of red wine. We started with a relatively young wine but it was too strong for me, I handed my glass back 😉 Mr Fussy had some of the next two wines of different ages. The salami was good though. I’m really not one for cold cut meats, and usually salami is too spicy, but this one was nice. There was a young guy assisting the owner, he was American but spoke Italian and so the dance began where it became quicker (if nothing else) to speak in Italian and have it interpreted, though I was genuinely impressed this older Italian lady spoke quite reasonable English.
The young guy was very exuberant. He clearly loved his job, a job his father had wanted him to take to get experience overseas. At one point he was flapping his arms and accidentally knocked over a very expensive bottle of red wine. Oops. This young chap had mentioned about the bottling of the wine occurring at a full moon. I asked if that was just a way to schedule it or if it had some significance. He explained that it was to do with the gravitational pull when there’s a full moon. They bottle then because there’s less chance of air being left in the bottle when it is corked. And air in the bottle deteriorates the quality of the wine. He lead us out the back to show us the machine that is used for corking, and while there he showed off this piece of Tar that had been hanging for 12 months and would eventually be made into a Salami.
With the wine tour finished the last thing to do was visit the Castle, sadly we didn’t get to the castle as time had slipped away and the driver is only allowed to be “on the job” for so many hours. This was a real disappointment to us. We love visiting castles. With NZ being such a young country we don’t have much in the way of history, or castles. Travelling to Europe means we get to absorb so much history and learn about what happened in different regions and by the kings and later owners of castles. So instead it was back on board to being another long 3 hours drive back to Rome. We did have another rest break, but for the most part people sort of dozed off and on until the rest stop and then chatted quietly for the last part of the journey.
Arriving back in Rome was a real eye opener. Unlike when we left, where the city of Rome seemed to still be slowly wakening up, the city was in full noise, and when I say noise, I mean it literally and figuratively.
Before I knew it we were amongst a throng of vehicles all trying to get through a stretch of road. There were horns blaring, and people yelling and crazy behaviour by motorcyclists. I asked how many official lanes there were which everyone laughed at. There are no lane markings. Before we had set out for the day I had remarked to Marta how the behaviour of road users were so different to NZ. Everyone seemed to just do as they pleased. And if you, as a pedestrian, happen to be at a crossing, well that meant nothing. Marta explained that the only reason the traffic actually worked is because no one paid any attention to the “rules”. Apparently, as soon as someone tries to drive according to the rules it results in chaos.
One we all exited the shuttle it was time for a quick goodbye before then heading back on foot to the apartment. There was a quick stop in at the supermarket and a few photos taken at the Capitoline museum. When we had walked up the stairs to reach the Capitoline museum (our apartment is the other side of it) there was a guy reading in Italian, and then a pianist playing a segment. It was like the reading was being interpreted into music, but the music wasn’t ad-hoc, the pianist had someone turning page of music. It was quite lovely. There had been seats set out in rows and people of all walks of life had sat down to enjoy the entertainment.
After a short stop to understand what was going on we continued on to the apartment and sighed with relief the air con had done the job. It had been a very hot and exhausting day.
We had to be up early the next day too. While I had waited for the tour party to arrive I booked online our tickets to the Coliseum. It opened at 8:30am and we wanted to arrive around then so that we had time to make our way to the other sights that were on our agenda. All we had was the Friday to trek around and tick a few places off our list.