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Italy, Part 4 – Road Trip

Posted Oct 31 2011 12:00am
Well, five months later, I’m finally continuing my travel journal chronicling our Italy trip. (I’ve been a little bit busy.) Be sure to read the first three installments , or re-read them just to get back into the mood. I did!

The middle leg of our Italy vacation was the road trip. We were driving from Rome to Florence which is only a three hour drive, but we decided to take it slow and explore for a couple of days along the way.

First, we had to get our rental car. I was nervous about this part, but it ended up being very easy. We got a car seat for Sam, and everything worked in a similar way as it does in the U.S. Adam was the designated driver, but we both had been observing the traffic in Rome and it didn’t seem to be as bad as some had made it out to be. Still, there was a lot to get used to. Adam had studied all the road signs so even when we couldn’t read the Italian, we usually knew what was going on, and we got good directions from the people at the rental place. It helps that Italian is a Romance language so we could decipher some of the more unusual signs. (Otherwise, I’m not sure would have ever escaped the endless loop our GPS took us through the following day, until we noticed the sign saying, “Deviazione.” It made me feel pretty smart to figure that one out. I could only imagine what it would be like to drive in China.)  We got out of the city and onto the highway with no problems at all. Then we hit the Autostrade and headed north. I thought the drivers were very good, but it was hard to get used to the way they ignored the lane markers and just weaved around. I think Adam actually kind of liked that. He’s not an uptight Type-A personality like I am. He seemed right at home on the road in Italy.

There wasn’t too much to see in this area of the country. We did see a cool electric train just outside of Rome. The countryside was hilly and pleasant, but nothing stunning. By the time we got out of the city, it was time to eat, so we stopped at an Autogrille, which is kind of like a roadside diner. Here, we started having our first real problems dealing with being in a foreign country. First, we could not figure out how and where to park. The signs were unclear and we ended up in a truck parking lot, and could not figure out how to get back to the restaurant. Adam ended up having to drive the wrong way on a one-way traffic lane, which scared the crap out of me, but there really was no other way to correct our mistake!

Inside the restaurant, we had our first experience with the stupid Italian system of going to one counter to pick out your food, then another counter to place your order and pay, and then back to the first counter to pick up your food. It probably took us a half hour just to figure that out, even though Rick Steves had told us all about it. Also, once outside Rome, not everyone spoke English any more. There was very little help available, and we were all hungry and frustrated. The food choices were very limited, too. Again, way too much bread and cheese and almost no meat. I was hugely disappointed because I had been told that these places had much better food than you would expect. Maybe it was good bread, but that didn’t do anything for me.

The rest of the drive was very nice. We were entering Italy’s region of Umbria, which is pretty much just east of Tuscany, home of Florence. We passed through Perugia, the capital of Umbria, and the town where a good friend of ours grew up. We had wanted to stop there, but it was actually quite a big place and we didn’t see how we could have navigated around it. We had also planned on taking smaller roads, but we decided to head straight to our hotel just north of Perugia to get settled, and then to explore from there.

The countryside in Umbria is gorgeous. Our friend had told us that the road to our hotel would be beautiful, but we were still in awe. It was breathtaking! We climbed up steep switchbacks and I oooed and ahhhed as poor Adam had to focus entirely on driving. Sam slept the entire time and missed it all.

Our hotel was at the top of the mountain, and man, did I pick a good one! It was a renovated 11th Century castle and it was just as gorgeous as it looks on its web site .

This was our room:



And here are some of our own pictures:
The nearby town that we really wanted to see was Gubbio, but before we headed out, we explored the castle grounds. We met two cats (Sam was thrilled!), named Montefeltro and Cunegonda. I never found out if Cunegonda was named after anyone famous, but Montefeltro was the name of a duke of Urbino from the 15th Century, who was born at this castle. The hostess told us that we would see his portrait when we visited Florence, in the Uffizi Gallery, which we later did.

We also met an ancient Italian lady who lived in a very small house on the grounds of the castle. We tried to talk to her and it was hard to communicate, but we enjoyed it because she was such a stereotype – a small, wrinkled, friendly old woman, who wanted to chat and was enamored of Sam. I wish we had gotten a photograph of her. We headed down the north side of the mountain road to get to Gubbio. I picked Gubbio because my friend told me that there was a funicular there, which would take us up a mountain to the oldest part of the town, and the pictures of the place on the web looked incredible. The hostess at the castle told us that the main road would take us straight into town and that we couldn’t miss the parking lot, where we’d have to get out and walk. But we ended up driving around the outskirts of Gubbio for about a half hour before we figured out what to do. Again, the Italians and their “directions.” Ugh.

But eventually, we did park and we walked through the extremely hilly streets towards the funicular. Sam did not want to walk so Adam had to carry her. We were rushed because we wanted to get back to the castle before dark. The driveway to reach the hotel was so steep and treacherous that Adam didn’t feel he would be able to navigate it after dark! We were tired, rushed, and frazzled, but Gubbio was our first real experience of a medieval town.  It’s difficult to capture what it feels like to walk through those narrow streets, and photos only show so much. We didn’t even try to take any, but here is someone else’s that captures a bit of the feel of it.

Unfortunately, Sam was too scared to ride the funicular. We couldn’t blame her – it was just a tiny cage on a rope that went up an incredibly steep hill.

So Adam and I took turns riding up and down, but we never got to explore the part of the city on top of the hill, which is supposed to be amazing. I was satisfied just with the funicular ride. As you go up the hill, you can see the old walls of the city, half crumbled, but with their purpose still clear. On an adjacent hillside is an impressive but crumbling castle, which I later found out is inhabited by nuns. The view of the mountains was incredible. Adam had the sense to take a couple of photos before the camera’s memory card filled up, but we wish we had taken many more.

Walking back down through the streets of Gubbio, we bought some fresh berries from a market for a snack instead of our usual gelato. That was a treat. Then we came across a miniature carousel and Sam had a ride. Once again – no planning necessary!

Back at our castle hotel, Adam sat outside and smoked a cigar while Montefeltro sat in his lap. Then we had our best meal yet at the hotel restaurant: scallops, duck, chicken curry, and pasta with meat sauce for Sam. We also had Montefeltro wine and tiramisu for dessert. Our waitress, Isabella, could speak only a bit of English, but she loved Sammy and the service was excellent. After dinner Isabella cut slices of prosciutto right off a cured, whole pig sitting in the corner. I have to admit, I was a little bit afraid to eat it, but I did.

Tuesday morning we had to leave for our next destination: Volterra. We were all a bit disappointed that our stay at the castle was so short. I didn’t have a plan for the day in mind, and Volterra was only an hour or so drive away, but a quick look at a map and chat with the hostess convinced us to head for Lake Trasimeno, a huge lake just west of Perugia.

The lake was gorgeous. We were really hoping to take a boat ride, and we knew there was a ferry in the small town just north of the lake, whose name I can’t recall. Unfortunately, it was more of a commuter ferry and didn’t run often enough for us to stick around. What we did was have lunch at a lovely restaurant right on the lake. Sam took photos.

Another fabulous meal of salmon tartar, shrimp curry ravioli, pasta with lake perch, veal, salad, and pasta with meat sauce (again) for Sam. I noticed that this meal had a similar flavor as the one from the night before, and I identified the common element as the salt, which seemed different than the salt I am used to. I asked the waitress about it and she said it was “mountain salt,”whatever that meant. She said that it could be purchased at any store. I took a look at the bottle but didn’t take a photo, and that was a mistake. Nobody, including my friend who grew up in Perugia, seems to know about any kind of special salt used in Umbria or what the mountain salt really was. Oh well, it was delicious. The food in Umbria was my favorite of the whole trip.

Our next stop was Sienna, a very popular destination in Italy. On our way, we crossed from Umbria into Tuscany. The countryside was slowly changing. Both regions are mountainous, or at least hilly, but Umbria is much more rugged, whereas Tuscany is filled with gently rolling hills. At this point, I was more impressed with Umbria.

Sienna was another medieval town, similar to Gubbio. We didn’t have much of an agenda there, except to walk through it a bit and see the Duomo. Rick Steves describes the Duomo perfectly: “The interior is a Renaissance riot of striped columns, intricate marble inlays, Michelangelo statues, and Bernini sculptures.” He also says it is “heaped with statues” and “plastered with frescoes.” Getting the idea? It’s pretty gaudy. In fact, it’s ugly. However, here, more than anywhere else, I appreciated the whole purpose of the cathedral: to impress, to awe, to astound, and maybe to inspire but maybe to diminish all else by contrast. Even in this day and age, to walk through those narrow, mean streets, and to come upon this wide-open square with its immense, intricate structure is to have your breath taken away.  That is, unless you are four years old. I love this video of Sam chasing pigeons with the Duomo in the background. I wonder if 13th Century children had the same (non) reaction.

In Sienna, we also found a little playground, where I took this photo of Adam pushing Sam on a swing, and she is beyond horizontal. It has nothing to do with Italy, but it’s one of my favorite photos of all time!

On our way from Sienna to Volterra, we had the most beautiful drive of the trip. The Tuscan hills are not overrated. We were lucky enough to climb through those hills at sunset. It was just gorgeous.  We arrived in Volterra at night and didn’t have the time or energy to do anything but grab a quick dinner and go to sleep. This time I picked a really dreary hotel and we had a hard time finding a place to eat and so the night was a bust. We did get adventurous and ordered wild boar and hare ragu for dinner (which Sam tried too), but it wasn’t very good. The restaurant was filled with a huge group of noisy teenage girls. There were a couple of adults in attendance so it seemed like a school group or something. Later I found out about Volterra’s connection to the Twilight books, and I wondered if that’s why the giggling group was there.

The next morning we only had time for a quick walk before we had to head out for Florence, so all I can say about Volterra is that it seemed to be the most dramatic of the small towns we visited. It’s set up high in the hills and the streets are just a little bit narrower and a little bit steeper than the others I’d seen.

The views from the city are incredible.

When you arrive you feel like you are entering a fortress, which of course, it essentially was. The streets we walked were filled with beautiful shops and I bought a pair of earrings – my only souvenir from the trip. Rick Steves claims Volterra is less touristy than the other small Tuscan towns. It’s his favorite. I was very disappointed that we weren’t able to spend more time there.

The road trip was stressful and frustrating at times. We didn’t do or see nearly as much as I had anticipated. By the time we left for Florence we were exhausted. But still, the experiences we had did give us a feel for what lies outside of the major cities of Italy. If you’re planning a trip to one of those cities, make time to take at least a day trip to one of the medieval towns. It’s hard to believe that these places still exist. It’s like another world.

I’ll wrap up my journal in the next installment: Florence.

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