The Rug Rats and the Renaissance: Our family’s voyage through Tuscany
Having just returned from our family’s week-long voyage through Tuscany, I feel compelled to note my memories of in words rather than just photos. I now know three truths:
- Everything you’ve heard about the food, wine and ice cream in Italy is entirely true;
- A family of five and an Alpha Romeo do not go together; and,
- It’s more than a shame to have only one week to explore Tuscany – it’s a cardinal sin.
I am truly grateful to my Tante Daina who chose this location to celebrate her 65th birthday with a group of 18 family and friends. After months of internet exploring, she chose La Fattoria Romignano, a wonderful tourist farm (in this case a working vineyard and olive grove) in the Tuscan countryside. An hour south of the Florence airport, all the major relic Tuscan villages were an easy day trip away. Think old-world charm (especially in the kitchen and bathroom), its two charming dwellings easily accommodated our famiglia with 11 roomy bedrooms, 8 bathrooms and 2 kitchens.
Somewhat jet-lagged after their first transatlantic flight, our kids slept off and on their first day as my husband and I navigated the villages leading to our fattoria (most unhelpful directions from a young boy in Triaina – I thought you could still trust a kid on a donkey these days), shopped for groceries in the IperCoop (or was that the UberCoop? which is what we nicknamed this Walmart of Italy), tentatively planned our day trips and welcomed family as they arrived in dribble and drabs from 3 different countries.
Though cool temperatures, constant rain and Easter Sunday Mass parking woes hampered our first day excursion to Siena, we endured the wet cobblestone climb to the Piazza del Campo which is mercifully closed to all vehicular traffic. Siena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, rivals Florence as the most popular and picturesque tourist site in the province of Tuscany and the site of the famous medieval il Palio bare-back horse race (which is still run twice a year amid its cries of barbarity) and its magnificent 700 year-old cathedral. Like the skyscraper building scrum of Manhattan in the early 1900’s, all Tuscan villages aimed to outdo each other in the height of their Towers and the Torre del Mangia sores over Sienna’s piazza. On the way back to the Fattoria, we couldn’t help a quick visit to Monteriggioni, a tiny but completely walled village 12k north of Siena, built in the 1200’s and seemingly well preserved to that period.
The vampire lovers in our group quickly clued me in to the fact that the Twilight series movie sequel, New Moon, was partially filmed in Montepulciano, and while not on my list of Tuscan ‘musts’, this became our second destination. Seeing that it was also famous for its Vino Nobile, I didn’t put up a big fight. We traced the footsteps – or flight pattern – of the vampire Edward through the Palazzo Communale and climbed to its top. Montepulciano proved to be another medieval and Renaissance, car-free treasure in Tuscany.
Sun and warmth greeted us in Assisi, our only excursion outside Tuscany. It seemed appropriate to bring my daughter, a lover of animals, to visit the tomb of St Francis in its magnificent Basilica di San Francesco. Though still very much venerated, I couldn’t help-chucking over what St. Francis would think of these Franciscan clerics on cell phones and driving cars! Modern monks aside, the breathless climb to the towering ancient Rocca Maggiore provided the most impressive view of Italian countryside for me and evoked powerful medieval spooky stories for my kids!
All tour buses head to San Gimignano and our Alpha Romeo joined the line. Did we come to see, up close, the spendour of an ancient skyline of 14 medieval towers that can be seen from miles away? Were we intrigued by a village that lost 2/3rds of its population to the plague in the 1300’s? Are you kidding?! San Gimignano is home to Pluripremiata Gelateria, crowned World Champion of Gelato in 2006-07 and again in 2008-09 (not sure what happened in 2007-08 and 2009-10 but if quality was down, we didn’t notice). The rest of San Gimignano was pretty awesome too.
Finally we could no longer fend off the pleas of our kids, and we pointed the little Alpha Romeo towards Pisa. Not without a stop, however, in Lucca where the Italian poet, Dante spent some of his time in exile and the famous opera composer Puccini was born. Our quadriceps and stomachs were now accustomed to navigating the winding and twisting passageways and streets in our other Tuscan stops, so we were immediately struck by the civilized and orderly pattern of the streets in Lucca. This is a Tuscan medieval village? Actually, no, it was founded by the Romans in 180BC, hence the more organized street grid. The high, walk-able wall which surrounds the historic part of town has got to be the most beautiful running trail I have ever seen. Sure, I took a stride or two.
I know Pisa’s rich history has more to offer tourists than its Leaning Tower, but having arrived at 3p it was all we could manage to see before heading back to our fattoria to take a turn cooking dinner. Its flood of tourists, long lines and tawdry souvenirs were also heavy deterrents at this point in our day; but the kids got the tacky photo ops they came for!
This is where my story takes a sad turn: leaving Florence to explore on our last single day in Tuscany is like – well – eating just one potato chip, or taking just one sip of wine – simply cannot be done. Yet I knew its churches, museums and art galleries would wear out all but the most dedicated of our little tourists and after my husband quipped to my relatives, “She takes no prisoners”, I knew we would have to tone it down. Upon arriving to La Piazza il Duomo, I realized I was wearing a skort, having forgotten about the European churches strict dress codes for its tourists (no bear legs). I was mortified but wasn’t turned away from a single church nor was I even sneered at – a sure sign of changing times in the Roman Catholic church. Having been warned of the long lines and high price admissions at L’accademia and L’Uffizi, we settled L’accademia – for we knew Michelangelo’s David would surely make an impression. After my son asked if we’d ever had a “Ta-Da!” moment, because he’d just had one seeing David for the first time, I knew we’d made the right choice. Then we hiked over to Basillica Santa Croce where my kids claimed they walk over 270 dead guys. Actually they did not, but did enjoy seeing the tombs of Michelangelo, Gallileo and Machiavelli (who they now know is not their mother reincarnated). The “really cool bridge” that my son posted later on Facebook was, of course, the Ponte Vecchio and we concluded our day trip in Firenze with a 45-minute (I know, another cardinal sin) visit to the San Lorenzo street market.
Getting back to my three truths, I would do anything to eat and drink my way through Italy once again. I am sure my memory of the tiny Italian car and our big family will soften because having a vehicle and not being tied to train or bus schedules proved most liberating (easy for me to say as I did none of the driving).
So, ciao Italia! Alla prossima!