Europe Part 2: Tuscany, “The true birthplace of the Italian Renaissance”

Tuscany has been a place I’ve been dreaming about visiting since I was a little child. With my Italian blood lines coming from the Lucca Valley, my dreams of roaming the Etruscan countryside were soon to come to reality. I was finally on my way, on a plane descending over the Swiss Alps and into Florence.

Even though like most Americans, my family roots are intertwined from multiple countries of Europe.  I tend to gravitate towards my minimal percentage of Italian I received from my full-blooded mothers, mother.  And the rest of me, well again like most Americans, I’m a mutt. Or maybe it’s because I’m broad-shouldered, have brown hair, fail every time at growing a mustache, smell like garlic, and I love wine that I tend to hang on to my “Italian” heritage over any other.

As sad as I was to be departing Paris, I was evermore excited to have our plane touch down in Florence.  Then rush to cram ourselves onto the Shuttle-Bus that would take us to baggage claim, find our bags, meander our way to the airport exit, and then patiently wait for the Car Rental Shuttle to pick us up.  After setting a new record score, playing Tetris with our bags in the back of the shuttle, the excitement of renting a big van for all of us to tour the Italian countryside together in had set. Only to have the utter shock of disappointment of our reserved van being already rented and having to settle with a light charcoal colored rust bucket, sub-compact Fiat, with a 5-speed stick shift oddly placed into the dashboard next to the radio. Instantly missing my big American Chevy truck, I was about to cram into a car made only for circus clowns. With the height of the roof barely making it past my waist when standing next to it, I had to laugh. Which helped me remember that I’m in Italy and mostly everybody drives these little cars.  So I made a pact with myself to follow the golden Italian rule: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  So I stopped being a baby, put a smile on my face and unlocked the door to this Gray Gorilla. After the bags were packed and my wife settled in her seat, my excitement had returned. I walked around the car for one last check to make sure we grabbed everything and then I climbed into the Silver Surfer only to notice right after the door closed that I’ll be the only on of the “Three Fat Guys” able to fit in this car. WE WERE CRAMPED. But it had to do, so I accepted this tight and compact challenge and our rented Silver Bullet of American Fury was off and already in third gear. As we left the airport following signs laid out by the rental car agent on how to get out of Florence and head towards Siena. I realized I never really paid attention to her giving directions, but more shaking my head in agreement while in my head I was thinking, “I’m here. I’m finally in Italy!”

Left turn, left turn, right turn, veer right at fork, third exit of round-about, under over-pass, over under-pass, trying to remember it’s now “Firenze”, not “Florence.” Somehow I made it to the highway, only stalling twice before the toll booth and of course, again when I was at it. I don’t know when my excitement had peaked and when it started heading down. But when we left the airport and I was driving my Silver Bullet of American Fury down the highway, my mind started going blank when trying to reads all of the Italian road signs.  I couldn’t help getting a little nervous and all I could think of was, “Where you at now Rosetta Stone!!” Lucky enough we found an area to pull over. We figured out the barely capable Tom-Tom we rented from Avis, found our destination, and set off into the sunset on the Raccordo Autostradale Siena-Firenze towards Castello di Casole.

Needless to say, my days using a standard transmission have been limited, leading to multiple stallings throughout the week, which kept my pregnant wife on the edge of her seat for most of the drives. But as we pulled into the driveway on the first night, both of us exhausted, the sun was setting, and I was in much need of some Italian Red Wine pronto!

Just in time. After unpacking the car and a glass of wine. I set up for this shot out by our infinity pool off the villa we rented.

A pizzeria in San Gimignano

I’m pretty sure I stopped in every shop that sold Cinghiale, Wild Boar.

Late lunch at Il Pino.  A tiny family run restaurant on the north side of San Gimignano. Great pasta dish.

Yes, that is snow.  And yes, this is Ike, Sandy, Megan, Camryn, and Daryn.

The westward view from Sant’Agostino de San Gimignano.

Megan wishing in the well. Piazza Della Cisterna, named for the underground cistern built in 1287

Windows on the Piazza.

Megs and Myself on top of Torre Grossa, Piazza Duomo in San Gimignano

Daryn being Daryn.

After a long, windy drive to Pisa.  They made me hold up Torre pendente di Pisa, The Leaning Tower of Pisa. Hooray for humor!

After finding parking in the walls of Lucca, we met up with Matthew from Schellville Grill in Sonoma.  Since he has a house outside Lucca, I thought he’d be best to take us around.

A spot for locals. Trattoria da Leo. Great food. Loud. Fun. What else could you ask for.

The top of San Michele in Lucca

The windows of Piazza dell’Anfiteatro of Lucca

Statue of Sallustio Bandini. Placed in Piazza dei Salimbeni. Bandini was the founder of the Library of Siena

Windows of Siena

Piazza del Campo, Siena.  No horse racing today.

Duomo di Siena, The Cathedral of Siena

The ceiling of the dome in the Duomo di Siena.

Pizza night back at the villa.

Just a little damage after five nights.

And yes. It was still freezing cold.

Last night in Italy. An olive tree and the North Star.

Traveling to Europe is an amazing experience when you go out on your own and not follow a guide.  The best part of this trip was having all of these experiences with my lovely wife and some of our closest friends.  Now that I have had the chance to experience Europe in the heart of winter, the next time I travel back here I won’t be bringing a jacket.

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Europe Part 1: Paris, “La Ville-Lumière” (“The City of Light”)

My wife and several close friends decided to travel to Europe in February.  We spent a week in a Paris, France and another week in the Tuscan hills of Italy.  Unfortunately for us, Mother Nature decided to hand us one of the coldest February’s of the last 100 years while we were in Europe. In Paris, we still managed to get around just fine on the Metro, while shedding layers as we entered Cafe’s and Stores.

Walking to the Eiffel Tower.  One of my favorite stops, the carousel across the La Seine.  Lucky for me someone decided to ride when I wanted to take a picture.

In front of Napoleons’ tomb.

The spice table of Le Comptoir Colonial in Montmartre.

The Heart of Paris, Sacre-Coeur Basillica.  A very powerful church and the best view of the city.

The View.

Pablo Picasso’s Square – Le BateauLavoir, Monmartre

The lovely bread. Now all I need is my cappuccino.

There it is. Ahh!

The ceiling of Notre Dame de Paris

The Winged Victory of Samothrace – after the Greek Goddess Nike (Victory). Musee du Louvre.

The fruit stand of Hediard on Pl. de la Madeleine

My love, on the train heading to Versailles.

Catacombes de Paris. Very interesting.  6 million Parisians.

My good friend Jason. Frozen at midnight for 10 seconds.

Midnight Shot of the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysees

“La Dame de fer” ( The Iron Lady). The true light of Paris. Magnificent a night.

The next morning we woke up and continued our journey to Italy.

To be continued….