Dick Brown's Trip to Tuscany and Rome, Italy - Summer 1997

Region: Europe
Destination: Tuscany and Rome, Italy
Submitted by: Richard L. Brown
From: 08/01/1997
To: 08/15/1997

Trip to Italy – 1997

In August 1997 we decided to travel back to Florence, Italy where Susan and I had spent several wonderful days during our honeymoon. This time we would be taking out about-to-be college-freshperson daughter, Virginia, and our Princeton student nephew John Carson. Tuscany has everything, art, culture, rolling fields, food that may be the best in world, fine wines, olive oil and balsamic vinegar; this essay will serve as a snapshot of our second visit to that wonderful region.

We flew from Philadelphia to Rome (Fiumicino a/k/a Leonardo Da Vinci Airport) where we picked up our rental car. After the usual process we found our way to the A1 autostrada and headed north in our not too peppy sedan. After an overnight flight I may have been less attentive than I should have been hurtling along at 75 mph but when I looked in the rear view mirror and saw a monster Mercedes Benz nudging our rear bumper I immediately woke up and moved over. I learned that 75 mph is slow lane speed on the Autostrada.

Entering Tuscany we found our way to the SR2 and headed for our rental property in Barbarino Val d’Elsa. I found the home by calling Suzanne B. Cohen Associates (see villaeurope.com) which advertised in the PAW. Suzanne B. Cohen is still in business and it appears that the property in which we stayed may still be in the catalogue. Many of their offerings looked wonderful but we came down to two; the one in Barbarino and an architect’s delight in a village a bit further south. When I spoke with Richard Cohen he pointed me in the right direction; the architect’s delight may be lovely but it lacks location. We had a great conversation, he had been the Maine Attorney General and the U.S. Attorney for the State of Maine, his brother William Cohen served as a U.S. Senator and as Secretary of Defense. I was in good hands. Unfortunately, Richard passed away a year after we spoke.

Barbarino is about half way between those historic two rivals, Florence and Siena and both are less than 20 miles away so we were in the heartland of Italian history. The "old town” attaches to the newer portion of Barabarino at the north end of the main street which travels roughly north south and rises as it approaches the Sienese gate at the south end of of the old town and as you drive or walk on you are in a village that existed beginning in the 11th century. The northern exit from this village within a village is through the Florentine gate, of course. Old Barbarino is a particularly Italian opera set with a high wall all around, stone streets, and high walls enclosing narrow streets. It is just off the old Florence – Siena road and is set on a modest rise that gives a view across the Valley of the River Elsa. Our home was part of a series of connected buildings owned by the Borghese family. As we later learned, one of the wineries in which the Borgheses produce their excellent Antinori wines is located directly under ancient Barbarino where we were staying.

On our first night in Barbarino we were too pooped to drive anywhere so we walked a few blocks to a "pizzeria” which was a revelation to those of us who have frequented pizzerias around Princeton. This was a lovely casual restaurant with a large patio overlooking the valley. The menu included a good selection of pasta and other items in addition to the expected ‘zas. The food, and wine, was wonderful. The entire experience set the tone for our trip; a series of unplanned pleasures.

In the morning Susan and I walked north through town while the other two slept in. We found a café called Las Pinas in a small park that also contained the local bocce courts. We quickly fell into our routine, walk a block south, buy the International Herald Tribune, walk to Las Pinas, order due capuch and brioche, sit outside under the trees and marvel at the locals drinking their morning grappa. We did this every morning. On our one evening visit we watched some seriously competitive bocce.

But life is not all cappuccino! Every day we rounded up the others and headed off for one adventure after another. On our first morning we drove to Florence and even found a place to park. I cannot recall the order of our Florentine adventures which occurred during three separate visits, but we did it all, the Uffizi, the David, Pitti Palace, National Museum, the gold jewelry on the Ponte Vecchio; we even had dinner one night in a small restaurant owned by the aunt of one of John’s Princeton classmates! Once she learned that John was the one that her niece said was coming she took over, no menu, no ordering, the food and wine just kept coming. Yum.

While in Florence we dragged the youngsters to the Hotel Anglo-Americano which was the only place where we could find a room on our honeymoon in October of 1970! The room was actually the drying room for the hotel laundry that had been pressed into service when the other rooms filled up. Lesson learned is that there is no off-season in Florence. We also took them to see Harry’s Bar; I know, touristy, but we were treated very well there in 1970 and again in 1997.

We could not neglect Siena either. That trip included seeing the movie of the Palio and if you cannot be in Siena for the Palio, or even if you can be, I highly recommend the movie. In short, it is a horse race contested by several historic districts in Siena, and the race takes place in a plaza in the center of town that was most certainly never meant for the purpose. It is very strategic and exciting.

The area around Barbarino includes Volterra, San Gimigiano, Lucca, Pisa, Poggibonsi and other historic towns all of which merit a visit. Volterra stands at the top of a relatively high and steep hill and provides great views over the countryside. There is a Roman theater, an acropolis and other archeological sites that are easily accessible and picturesque. Our high point is not so cultural, we went into an art gallery just inside the town gates and saw an exhibition of photographs, which sent Susan running out to gather up the "children” who just had to see the exhibition of photos of penises. Hey Dorothy you aren’t in Philly any more!

We visited San Gimigiano twice; first as tourists and the second time because I had been taught that one should always read the posters that are stuck up on walls, doors etc. One such poster advertised an Opera to be performed al fresco in San Gimigiano. We drove up, bought delicious sandwiches and a bottle of wine then sat on the battlements looking out into the distance until curtain time. Nowhere could we find any notice of which opera was to be performed, never mind, we have been regular opera subscribers for years and we were sure we would recognize the plot right away. Wrong. It was not until Act II that the penny dropped "Da Da Dum Dum di Dum …” Aha, the Anvil Chorus, it must be Il Trovatore which we had never seen. To quote from Sir Denis Forman in A Night at the Opera, "Stand by for the most confused baby-swapping plot in the business.” No wonder we did not understand the plot. The opera was performed at the bottom of a long sloping paved area in front of the cathedral. At intermission one simply walked around the back of the stage to the gelato stand and bought dessert. Another great evening that was not in the guidebook, so always read those posters.

Pisa is north of Florence and seemed a must see so off we went on a daylong trip. My advice is "skip Pisa” unless you will be shunned back home if you do not take the mandatory Leaning Tower photo. The only interesting thing we saw in a totally touristy area was an explanation of ongoing efforts to keep the Tower from falling over. However, all was not lost. Being this far north we went on to Lucca, which is a charming city. I would seriously consider staying in Lucca for a few days to explore the city and the area which includes Carrara and the Carrara marble quarries. Lucca is enclosed by a serious wall on top of which is a very wide green space through which you can complete an entire circuit of the City. Many ancient twisty streets and lovely restaurants.

A couple of final words before we head back to Roma. The food in Tuscany and Umbria is amazing, we believe it may be the best in the world so come hungry and eat local. Even modest restaurants can serve great food, though it is worth seeking local guidance. You will recall from your European History classes that the various City-States in what is now Italy spent all their time at war with one another. Many of these Cities are on the top of hills and one concomitant of being at war with your neighbors is that you do not want them to come visiting; as a result, the roads don’t go directly to the neighboring town. One night we set out to have dinner in a nearby (?) town that we could see from our windows but it took well over an hour to drive there. So leave plenty of time and enjoy the twisty roads.

To be fair, I enjoyed driving in Italy and did not find it dangerous or scary at all but then I like small roads and I love getting lost. Landscape photography can be difficult, especially in the summer because of haze in the air. If you have a rainstorm over night cancel all other plans, grab the camera and get out there. For the hikers, as of 1997 Italy was nothing like the US or UK in terms of hiking maps, but I found a hiking book that had some pleasant hikes around our area and the directions were pretty decent. This is a great way to see the countryside as you walk though someone’s vineyard. If you are in a buying mood, I recommend that you look at the balsamic vinegar and olive oil rather than the wine. You can get great Italian wine all over the US but some of the aged balsamic you may not see here.

We drove back to Rome on the A1 passing, to my dismay, the Prado outlet store. I was outvoted 3 – 1 on that item. Suzanne B. Cohen and Associates then offered a deal allowing us to stay a few nights in a very large suite in a hotel just a couple of blocks from the Coliseum, the Circus Maximus and other famous sites. I was amazed that in Rome you just walk over and look, not tickets needed though I think that may have changed a bit.

If you go to Rome take a tour of the Vatican, I know tours are so déclassé, but with the Vatican it is the only way unless you work your way up into the Curia. The art and the history are like nothing you will see anywhere else.

We tended to dine close to Italian time (late) and focused on the Trastavere, which is across the Tiber from the main part of Rome. Again my favorite twisty streets, opera set architecture and good food and wine. One memorable night Susan and I parted from Virginia and John after dinner and walked back across the River and around for a bit then at about midnight we went back to the Trastavere where we found a small bar on a tiny street with walls reaching up to the sky, we sat at one of the two small tables outside with our grappa and heard the bells toll midnight as grandmothers walked by with their grandchildren; a different culture for sure.

More than 15 years after the event I cannot recall the costs and they would be seriously out of date in any case. I recall that the flights were fine and the driving was also fun. Virginia and John took a train from Florence to Venice and stayed a couple of nights and they reported that the train trip was excellent and they found a reasonably priced hotel so train travel may be an option also.


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