We returned to Florence to pick-up our rental Alfa Romeo from Hertz (who else). Grazie mille, Hertz! Our research indicated that the best way to see the Tuscan hillside is by car, as there are no trains to the small towns, and the secondary roads are narrow. I’m not sure how we decided that I would do the driving and Eva would navigate, but no worries–she and I work well in the kitchen so why not on the streets and highways of Tuscany? (It’s really because we were too cheap to pay an extra 7 Euros per day–and Eva likes the vino [her words]).
When driving through Florence, you must throw out all common sense you learned in high school driver’s education, i. e. be courteous, drive defensively, leave plenty of room between you and the other guy, etc. I heard about Snooky and even had a friend suffer an accident in Italy, so I decided my plan of attack was to be confident and level headed. Yeah right…Let’s just say that driving in Florence iis like squeezing into jeans that are 2 sizes too small and swatting flies simulataneously, and if you are not aggressive, you will be beaten into submission and will be immobilized by the frenzy of Fiats, Vespas and cyclists around you. If there are 6 inches between you and the guy in front of you it is an open invitation for Mario and his brother to cut in. The one-way stradas allow for parking, but you must pull up onto the curb. If you are walking on the two-foot wide sidewalk and a bus approaches, you must flatten your backside against the building, hold your belongings close, suck in your belly, and close your eyes (and say a hail Mary) until the bus passes. While drivers recognize that white lines divide traffic, they are merely suggestions to the motorcycles and cyclists. Rules do not apply to them. In our last round-about out of town, I swear I felt a cyclist (stylishly wearing a navy blazer, camel pants and Italian loafers) graze my cheek and shout “hey” in an angry Italian voltage. Mi dispiace! What did I do?
Driving is definitely a two person job–Eva navigated and coached me through the road signs, and provided a second pair of eyes. Getting out of Florence and beginning our ascent to the Tuscan hillside was only a couple kilometers, but I’m sure I was holding my breath until we safely reached the outskirts. Che vista! Che panorama! Looking back through my rearview mirror was the most stunning sight of the clay-roof city and the Arno. Che vista, che panorama would be anthem for the next week. We headed south on the S2, passing through the villages of Montebuoni, Sambuca, Spicciano, with coral and ochre colored buildings, men standing guard outside the cafes, and the women holding court in the parks. It was like a movie passing before our eyes. Every town, was just as quaint and with it’s own personality as the previous. We never regretted a wrong turn and one had us in Poggibonsi. We stopped to get our bearings in a bar for an caffe freddo (and use il bagno) where old men were playing cards in the back room and barely looked up when we passed.
We had no reservations for lodging for the night, and headed west on S68 with hopes of finding an available room in Volterra. San Gimignano is the more popular spot, but we were looking to avoid the throngs of tour buses. Volterra is Rick Steves favorite hillside town and much less commercialized. We lucked-out with our first attempt at the Hotel Sole, where the proprietor, Franchesco, only charged us 70 Euros for his last room.
Volterra did not disappoint. 3,000 years old and untouched by the bombs of WWII. Adjacent to our hotel was a high school futbol field, where players practiced with American music blasting over the speakers and parents observing from the grandstands. The paradox of the young futbol players against the ancient hillside town above. A beautiful little town with narrow alleys, a small boy flag waving in the street, and the best gellato to date — vanilla with meringue. Cooked, crunchy meringue cookies chopped and oozing from the vanilla. Sono molto contente!