Chapter Five – Lugano, ItalyDecember 25, 2011
Chapter Seven – Cinque Terre/Milano, ItalyDecember 27, 2011
Day Twelve – Colle Flowers, If Those Gardens Are Beautiful My Nose Will Grow Longer, A Miracoli We Found It, Bird Droppings, Dinner In A Medieval Town And For Whom The Bells Toll
This was our longest drive (thanks to an autobahn miscue by yours truly). We left Lugano at 8:30 and were on our way to a bed and breakfast I had read about in National Geographic Traveler. The B&B, Antica casa le Rondini, is located in the tiny medieval town of Colle di Buggiano, located in the hills above Montecatini Terme. We had no idea where the place was (except an address) and we could not drive into the town. We parked at a lot on the road and hiked up through the old town of Colle di Buggiano. Tracy and I resembled a couple of refugees from The Amazing Race, wandering up and down cobblestone streets and alleys until we just happened to be right in front of the Antica casa le Rondini.
Fulvia (sounds like one of the names that Seinfeld yelled out in that famous episode) showed us to our room that had 400-year-old frescoes in it. Fulvia and her husband own the bed & breakfast, and she told us about the area and showed us the garden where we would be served the complimentary breakfast the following two mornings. The room was spacious with a decent bathroom, and there were some lovely views of some flowers and the countryside.
At this time, we didn’t hear any bells. We obviously had eaten too much at Stella d’Italia the past couple of days, because neither of us were hungry. I had told Tracy about some gardens in Collodi, a nearby town where the story of Pinocchio was written, so we drove to the Villa Garzoni and its gardens. The building was closed for restoration, but the gardens were open.
I had heard months before that the gardens were in a sad state, but I hoped for the best. Tracy needed her garden fix. As it turned out, sad was being too kind. This place could be a showcase some day if they ever fix up the grounds. Everything from the gardens to the sculptures to the steps looked like they hadn’t been taken care for a long time. Too bad.
It was still early in the afternoon, so we decided to zip down to Pisa. I wanted to go up in the Tower, but since I did not have a reservation, I knew I would just get a chance to see from the outside, but, hey, we had a couple of hours to kill and, amazingly, we still were not hungry. I realized why they call the area where the Leaning Tower is located the Campo dei Miracoli, because to find the damn Campo takes a frickin’ miracle. First there were signs, then they would disappear. Then they would reappear for an instant, only to disappear faster than the “Runaway Bride.” Since we had conquered Saarbrücken, we persevered.
Sadly, all the little tourist trap booths really cheapen the experience. We did the obligatory holding out your hands to hold up the Tower picture (except in ours it looks like Tracy is trying to push it over) and decided to relax down the street at a cafe with a carafe of wine and a little pizza.
Sitting next to us were some tourists from Florida, and one man got up to take a picture. At the exact moment he clicked the camera, a pigeon dropped a load right on the guy’s nice golf shirt. It was not a pretty sight, but they gave him grief for the next half hour and we were more than happy to join in. He was a good sport about it.
We drove back to Colle di Buggiano, showered and walked to the only restaurant in town…on the only square in town (not hard to find). The restaurant didn’t open until eight and we were early. Fortunately the guy next door who owned a little bar, scurried and put some tables and chairs outside, so we had a couple of Campari cocktails while waiting for the restaurant to open. Digression: In my never-ending quest to investigate areas to report, I tried Campari on this trip with OJ (the drink, not the murderer), soda, on the rocks and in some mysterious bottled form.
My personal favorite was Campari with orange juice (maybe because if I tried real hard I could imagine it was a mai tai). Dinner was nothing spectacular, but the price was right. We were spoiled after the two weeks of great food we had eaten on the trip, especially at the Stella (no, I did not do a Marlon Brando impersonation there) d”Italia. By the time we were finished, however, the place was packed. The Montecatini Terme young crowd frequents this restaurant because of its reasonable prices. After dinner, we wandered across the street to the only other place on the square for an after dinner libation (we are equal opportunity drinkers). The decor was much more modern than anything else in town, and although they called it a wine bar, it had a nice selection of drinks. I decided on a decaf Irish coffee (one of the first signs of aging is not being able to drink caffeinated coffee after seven in the evening).
We went back to our B&B to go to sleep, and Tracy (who usually can sleep through an earthquake or at least our dog’s incessant snoring), succumbed to the battle of dueling church bells. There was one church that chimed eleven bells at eleven. The other followed suit about five minutes later. Tracy hates to know what time it is when she’s in bed (especially twice) until it’s time to wake up. It was not a good night for her. I slept like a baby. Decaf had done the job (along with some strong whiskey).
Day Thirteen – Strangers On A Train, That’s The Ticket, In Search Of The Greatest Chicken Sandwich, Looking For Bling In All The Wrong Places, Buyer’s Remorse, Dueling Bells (part two)
In the morning, Tracy conjectured she might have fallen asleep at some juncture during the night, but she was dragging. As for me, the next thing I heard after the double elevens the previous night were the double sixes. I was ready for the day.
Tracy joked she must have bags under her eyes the size of a handbag. Unfortunately, that got her in a shopping mood. We had talked about going to Lucca, but it was a beautiful day and Firenze was calling our name. Lucca will wait until next time. We had a train to catch.
When we were in Florence in May of 2001, Tracy had spied a pair of bling bling (English translates to earrings) she wanted to buy. On that day, I had been too busy hanging out at the Hotel Hermitage rooftop, drinking wine, to be bothered by earrings, so she ended up having drinks with me and the other couple (Kim and Mary for those who want foreshadowing of our other European adventures on this site) traveling with us on that trip. She wanted to go back to the Ponte Vecchio and purchase those earrings, and today was going to be that day.
After a delightful breakfast in the garden of our B&B, we drove to the station in plenty of time to catch the 10:25 train to Florence. Plenty of time, that is, if there wasn’t a lady at the head of the line who took forever to buy whatever the heck she was buying. The man at the ticket counter kept throwing up his arms in desperation seemingly saying, “Just figure out where you’re going lady!” The line grew longer and longer. The time until the train departed became shorter and shorter. Drastic measures were now called for.
Right behind us in line was a young English woman and her mum (Britspeak) and a German couple. The six of us devised a plan. We decided to board the train with no tickets, and if asked, tell the ticket person of the station situation and then purchase the tickets on the train. If they gave us any trouble, we dubbed ourselves the Coalition Forces.
I felt like the guys on the train in the Great Escape after they had broken out of the camp, except I was sure the ticket taker didn’t have a machine gun. We never saw a ticket person the entire trip, so the trip was free.
Florence on a day with blue skies and a few wisps of white clouds is always a stunning sight for us. We walked with the Brits to the Duomo, and with no line, we were inside in a matter of moments. As the clock crept toward noon, you should know by now what we were thinking. Our minds were on chicken sandwiches. Why, you ask (or maybe you didn’t)? Let me digress (for a change): When we first visited Florence in 1996, our hotel was located near Giacosa Caffé Pasticceria on via Torabuoni. We had gone with another couple on this trip, and I had scared them half (well maybe three-quarters) to death with my erratic driving (hey, if you’re driven in Florence, it is hell on earth). In the matter of five minutes, I had nearly wiped out a dozen street vendors in one part of the city, run over a gaggle of Nuns (maybe a flock of Nuns sounds better) and had backed up at a high rate of speed down a one-way street in a futile effort to find our hotel. When we finally arrived at the parking garage, and our friends had some color back in their faces, I told them I’d buy them a drink.
On that day, we went to Giacosa, and the bartender made the greatest screwdriver ever concocted replete with fresh orange juice that I could still taste today if he hadn’t put so much vodka in the glass. But even better, this cafe had the freshest chicken sandwiches on Earth. The chicken and lettuce with mayo are placed between two round-type croissant pieces of bread, and the four of us devoured them often during our three-day stay. When we left Florence on that trip, we bought the remaining ten sandwiches for the drive to Bellagio.
When we came back in 2001, the sandwiches were just as good. Tracy and I stood at the corner where Giocasa was supposed to be, and to our dismay it was now a damned dress store. I guarantee, had I not seen that Giacosa had moved off the via Torabuoni onto a side street, there would have been more crying than a Tammy Faye Baker Convention. The sandwiches, as always, did not disappoint. There were four sandwiches left when we got inside, and we bought them all (they are small).
We walked around Florence stuffing our faces full of chicken sandwiches until we started walking across the bling bling capital of Italy, the Ponte Vecchio. I lasted about 15 minutes looking at assorted jewelry until I had to go buy a USA Today and catch up on the sports world while Tracy tried to find her beloved earrings. Incredibly, she found them and, of course, purchased them.
The Palazzo Vecchio was one site in Florence we had never visited. We saw our Brit friends on the way over. We enjoyed the Palazzo Vecchio, and Tracy and I made a vow that next time we visit Florence, we were going to hire a guide for 1/2 a day and get even more involved with these historical sites. Either that or just eat chicken sandwiches all day.
Wine and crackers at an overpriced cafe on Piazza della Signoria or as we call it…Neptune Square, was enjoyable, as always. I can never get enough of those statues of people cutting other people’s heads off. Tracy told me I could not sing, “I Ain’t Got No Body” or “Going out of My Head” on this trip, and I did not.
Our British friends yelled out to us from their horse drawn carriage as it trotted by, and I quickly got my camera, stood up looking like the dorky tourist I am and took their picture. Tracy said, “We should send it to them.” I told her that would be good idea if only we knew where they lived.
I had a brown leather jacket ruined a couple of years ago, so we decided to look. MISTAKE. The sales guy escorted us up about five flights of stairs to the “Let’s Sell This Stupid American Something Right Now” room. Worked like a charm.
He showed me a jacket with the softest leather that I had ever felt. So I bought the damned thing. I rationalized that we didn’t have to pay for the train to Florence that morning (of course that fare turned out to be less than four euros, but it made me feel better for a couple of minutes). We trained back to the B&B, visited a cute little restaurant down the road in Colle (or was it Buggiano… the signs were a little whacked).
I still had sticker shock from the leather coat experience. The meal was fine, the wine superb and we went back to our room. One bad move. In our buying frenzy of bling bling and the leather coat, we had forgotten to buy earplugs. Tracy did better than the night before, but it still was tough on her.
I, of course, slept like a baby because we had gone back to the place on the square where I had the great Irish coffee the previous night. On this night I downed a Campari on the rocks with a splash of, well, I really don’t remember.
Next: Chapter Seven – Cinque Terre/Milano, Italy