Back in Tuscany

It’s been two whole days without even the slightest hint of a snowflake, so I think it’s safe to leave Southern Italy – for now – and head back north to continue exploring the gardens of Tuscany.

The enchantingly beautiful landscapes that have put “Renting a villa in Tuscany” on so many bucket lists begin just outside the south walls of Florence. View from the Boboli Gardens

From Florence it’s just a short drive south to the Chianti region.  We all know what that region is famous for.  What many people may not know is how many beautiful and interesting gardens there are in the area – all of which we’ll be visiting.  But before the wine lovers among you despair, not to worry, we’ll visit a few vineyards along the way.  In fact, some of the best wineries have the most beautiful gardens.  And some of the vineyards are so beautiful, they’re almost gardens all on their own.

the vintner’s canary in the mine; roses are susceptible to many of the same diseases that attack vitis vinifera, so first sign of disease in roses alerts the vintner to take necessary steps to protect the vines

The rose is the vintner’s canary in the mine. It is susceptible to many of the same diseases that attack the grape vine.
The first sign of disease in the rose alerts the vintner that something is amiss in the vineyard.

Vineyards and olive groves near Panzano.

The Chianti. A beautiful region no matter what time of year. Vineyards and olive groves near Panzano. Late May.

Vineyards near San Gusmè in late fall.

Vineyards near San Gusmè. October.

But before we head out, a few words about the nitty gritty of getting to all these gardens and wineries.  Unless you’re on a tour or have hired a private driver, someone you know – maybe you – is going to have to get behind the wheel.  In Italian – al volante – ‘at the flying thing’.

Driving In some places is more about pazienza than flying.

Sometimes of course, driving is more about pazienza than flying. Sirmione, Lake Garda.

First of all, there’s the issue of the GPS.  To take or not to take.  My advice.  Don’t.

When I tell people that I never use a GPS when travelling around Italy, the polite ones at least make an effort at curiosity.  “Wouldn’t it make life a lot easier? – more relaxing?”  I don’t know whether they actually listen to me or not, but I tell them about some or all of the following in an effort to throw some light on my seemingly Luddite position.

I once came across a group of young Americans in Montepulciano.  Like all the charming hilltop villages in Tuscany, the centro storico (historic centre) is on the small side. Yet, despite being armed with several computers and a GPS, they had still managed to get themselves totally lost.

Montepulciano

In the centro storico of Montepulciano

Another evening, after a hard day of touring the Tuscan countryside, I was relaxing in the lounge of Villa Marsili in Cortona – the village Francis Mayes made famous with her memoir, “Under the Tuscan Sun” – enjoying a glass of the grappa-based punch from the aperitivo table that the hotel sets out each evening.  After a while a couple from Canada joined me.  (In case you’re wondering, unless I’m speaking with hotel staff, I drop my “no-English rule” in hotels.)

It may look like a pitcher of OJ ...

It’s not OJ in that innocent-looking pitcher.

As we were exchanging stories about the sites we’d seen that day, this being Italy, the challenges of navigating the roads to these places inevitably came up.  When I mentioned my decision to travel GPS-free, they confessed that on the way to the hotel – which, by the way, is not actually in the town, but just outside – their GPS had taken them along the narrow cobblestone alleys of the town right into the centro storico, a feat which, in addition to being illegal and could have netted them a huge fine, they had found not at all relaxing.

A street in Cortona.

Give yourself a break. Don’t even think of driving in Cortona. No matter what your GPS tells you to do.

One of my favourite agriturismi  (Bed & Breakfast) in Tuscany is Guardastelle (Watching the Stars).  At breakfast an exasperated American couple described problems they were having with “Emily”.  Emily was the guide on the GPS that came with the car they had picked up a few days earlier at the airport.  The problem was that Emily refused to speak English to them and they spoke no German.   Eventually they solved the problem.  They turned off the volume.

At Guardastelle you can stay in the main villa or your own little cottage.

At Guardastelle you can stay in the main villa or your own little cottage.

And then there was the Italian couple, who, having set out for a lovely holiday on the island of Capri, had ended up in northern Italy in what is described on Wikipedia as “a busy centre for industrial activities and commercial exchanges”.  They had entered Carpi in their GPS and somehow never thought to ask themselves why the landscape they were driving through was getting more and more industrialized.  I wonder if they decided to keep on going.  Venice was close by.

Capri, where the only industries are limoncello and sandals.

Capri, where the only industries are limoncello and sandals.

But maybe even more important than any of the above is the “use it or lose it” factor. People who put their fate into the hands of their GPS remind me of people who work out in the gym and then take the elevator to the second floor.   Travel gives you so many chances to give your brain a real workout. Forget about crosswords and Sudoko puzzles. If you want to keep your brain in shape, ward off dementia, how about trying to find your way to that charming hotel in the centro storico with only a map and your wits to guide you?  Go ahead.  Use your brain.  At the very worst you’ll get hopelessly lost and then what a great story you’ll have to tell when you get back home.

Now that I’ve said my bit about the GPS, a few comments about the signs you’ll come across.

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Strada dissestata – deformed road

At the risk of having my driver’s licence flagged next time I go to renew it, I confess that whenever I’m driving back home and come across a sign warning of some kind of hazard on the road ahead, I am more inclined to annoyance than vigilance.  It’s not just the ugly shade of orange they use for these things or the tax dollars involved.

How many times can one be expected to be go into high alert mode when the promised hazards keep failing to materialize?  How many times have I slowed down after coming across  “Bump ahead” and miles later have yet to encounter anything that remotely qualifies as a bump?  Or stopped at a “Road Closed” sign and sat there pondering my next move as the guy behind me drove right through?

Beginning of sterrato (literally "no earth") stretch.

Beginning of sterrato (literally “no earth”) stretch.

But in Italy it’s a whole different kettle of fish or, as Italians might put it, tutt’altra pasta (a whole different kind of pasta).  Here I’m often left wishing they’d put a few more signs out there. “Dangerous Curve Ahead” would be a good start.

I have no idea what this sign means.

I have no idea what this sign means. Of course I know what it means theoretically. The driver with the red arrow (me) is supposed to pull over/yield to the driver with the black arrow. But where exactly am I supposed to pull over to?

Maybe they’ve already thought of that and given up.  There are just too many curve pericolose.  And it’s not just the obvious ones.  You can be driving along a nice, peaceful country lane when all of a sudden  around a curve…

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I slammed on the brakes.  The driver started yelling at me “Avanti signora! Vada!”  He did use the formal, polite form of you, but there was no way I was going to “avanti” anything.

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The standoff

Finally, totally exasperated with me, he gave up and got back in his van…

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… and like little Bo Peep…

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When you come across a sign warning you to Procedere con la massima cautela, I highly recommend you take the advice and “proceed with the maximum caution”.  In fact, it might be a good idea even where there is no sign.

One more thing.  Did you notice the colour of the last road?  It’s bianco (white), like the roads you’ll eventually wind up driving along, especially if you want to taste some of that vino where it’s made.   I haven’t visited a vineyard yet which didn’t involve driving along a stretch of these dusty roads.

The strada bianca that leads to the Dievole vineyard.

The strada bianca into the Dievole vineyard.

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Helpfully, they’re even called strade bianche and are coloured white on maps.

One thing is certain.  No matter what colour car you started with, after a day spent touring the wineries, you’ll be driving back to your hotel in a macchina bianca.

No matter colour your car is, by the end of a day visiting vineyards, it will be una macchina bianca.

Now that we’ve got the ins and outs of being ‘at the flying thing’ out of the way, let’s go visit some gardens and vineyards.

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