Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Weekend in Tuscany

I have no further updates on the chalet hunt. We are still researching exactly which little village we want to land in and so have not looked at any other specific houses. I am determined to at least lay eyeballs on each and every ski village in the French-speaking part of Switzerland as well as right over the border in France. I’ve been scoring each village on a scale of 1 to 10 for access to the slopes, price of housing, how many famous people live there, etc. So far, Gstaad wins in the famous residents category but do we really want to live near Roman Polanski? No, we do not. Grand One is nine and she will soon be right in Roman’s wheelhouse. No need to go inviting trouble, I say.

By the way, Avoriaz in France is the most horrible place I’ve ever seen. It’s one of those “site-built” ski resorts with no actual town. Just high rise after high rise after high rise, with ski rental shops and pizza joints on the street level. Oh, it was so bad, Mr. Big and I were in shock. We thought that that level of tackiness was confined only to the US. No, someone allowed it to sneak across the Atlantic and climb up an Alp. Don’t go there unless you are a twenty-something hard core snowboarder who is not in the least bit interested in ambience and only care what time the bars close. Hmmmm. Small Son would probably love it.

Since I can’t show you any houses, I will tell you about Tuscany. Y’all. I am so sorry, and I am probably going to start a war, but Tuscany cannot hold a candle to Provence. (OK, all of you Europeans are going to get a little chuckle out of this, but I need to explain to all of the Americans who read this blog and who have never been to Europe, that Tuscany is in Italy and Provence is in France.) Right. Move on. Let’s begin by explaining that the whole region of Tuscany is huge. You could fit 10 Provences inside of Tuscany. Not all of Tuscany is what Americans think of when they picture “Tuscany”.

There is only one part of Tuscany that contains the gentle, rolling hills covered with vines and olives that we have come to know as “Tuscany”.

Consequently, because the area is so large, you find yourself driving miles and miles and miles between the villages and the sights you want to see. It’s a lot of driving, I’m just warning you. I am going to begin by talking about things in Tuscany that you probably didn’t even know were in Tuscany.

1. The Leaning Tower of Pisa. Allow yourself approximately 1.5 hours in the town of Pisa. This includes parking, walking to the tower, having your picture taken in front of the tower, sitting at a wine bar across the street from the tower and having a drink whilst staring at it and then leaving. That is all there is to do in Pisa. Really.

2. Carrera. This is the town near the coast where they mine carrera marble. We didn’t even get out of the car, but we did drive through and ogle the mountains looming over the town that look snow-covered. It is not snow. It is the blindingly white marble that they have been mining for over a hundred years from the tops of the mountains and selling to Americans to cover the walls of their bathrooms and their fireplace surrounds.

3. The city of Florence. We did not go there because we have friends coming to visit next summer and this city is on their itinerary so we didn’t want to spoil the surprise. I understand it is lovely and I am excited to visit.

Now, into the countryside that resembles what we think of as “the real Tuscany”. First, San Gimignano. Yes, it is really, really quaint. Yes, it is really, really crowded. Luckily, we arrived first thing in the morning, in the rain, so we were able to actually see the village. By the time we had walked all through the town and were on our way out, it had stopped raining.

People were, literally, POURING into the main arrival gate. It was crazy! Mr. Big and I were like, thank God we got here early! It was like Moses parting the Red Sea trying to fight our way out of the village but it was worth seeing. If you must stay in San Gimignano because you are the kind of person who wants to be right in the thick of things, stay in the hotel called Leon Bianco (White Lion) right in the city center. Great location and it looked very, very nice. Of course, you will probably have to bribe somebody to get a reservation at this place before 2015, but you can always live in hope.

We, however, did not stay in San Gimignano. The first night, on the way down the coast from Switzerland, we stayed in Rapallo, near Portofino. (This is not even in Tuscany, so I’m not going to talk about how fabulous it is in this blog entry. It is in the area directly north along the Mediterranean called Liguria.) The second night, after reaching Tuscany, we cruised into Castelfiorentino really late. As we usually do, we just started looking for a hotel that looked acceptable. We find one called Hotel Des Amis that had easy parking out front and Mr. Big makes me go inside to inquire about rooms. Does Mr. Big think that I know how to speak Italian? No. He knows that I do not speak Italian. But, as often happens in a long-term marriage, certain things become the domain of each partner. In our marriage, if the task involves interacting with actual live people, it is my job. If it involves the internet, it is Mr. Big’s job. You see how that works? If the task may possibly involve embarrassment and stumbling over language issues, it is my job. I do not know why this has become my job over the years. I just go ahead and do it. Sometimes, I think to myself, “Dude, why don’t I stay here in the car and YOU go make an ass of yourself?” But I have learned that it is not worth the argument and off I trudge.

OK. So, here I am in the Hotel Des Amis , which looks promising from the outside. Mr. Big is out in the car “saving” the primo-bitchin’ parking space that he has acquired. Once I stepped inside the foyer, I knew there may be some issues regarding this hotel. First, there was no one at the front desk, but that was not too weird, so I go searching for the desk clerk, or whomever. I haven’t even made into the room beyond the reception area when I am practically overrun by a dozen rugrats who are all about 7 years old. Well. This is unnerving because I am used to Swiss children who don’t make a peep, ever, even if being set on fire, and here were a dozen yelling, running, screaming Italian bambinis climbing in, on and over the reception desk, hanging from the draperies, you name it and they were attempting to scale it.

Apparently, the Hotel Des Amis was a family-run hotel and there was a birthday party of one of the children going on. Since the Mom and Dad of the Birthday Kid were busy corralling the ferrets, er, children, it was left to the Grandma and Grandpa to check us in, a service which they had not performed since the Second World War. BTW, if you are trying to Google this hotel, you will not find it on the internet. It does not exist in cyberspace. But, trust me, it is there. Anyway, via sign language and a little bit of Spanish (which is very close to Italian, thank God!), I tell Grandma that we need a room for one night. I point out to Grandpa Mr. Big’s strategic location across the plaza. Gramps insists on doddering out across the plaza to help Mr. Big with the luggage.

Meanwhile, Grandma is showing me up two flights of stairs to our room. WHOA! Lady, the 1940’s called and they want their room back! Y’all. There was a TV in this room from somebody’s garage sale. I took a picture of it. I haven’t seen one of these in forever. I asked about the internet and Grandma looked at me like I had 5 heads. Literally, I felt exactly like I was spending the night in my own Grandma’s house. If any of my Grandmas were still alive (which they aren’t), they would have felt right at home.

So, Mr. Big comes up the stairs with Grandpa and the luggage. I’m like, Mr. Big! Why are you letting Grandpa carry my bag up two flights of stairs? That nice little Italian man is going to need oxygen! Mr. Big gives me the look which means that I am really pushing my luck and his limits to their outer extremities. So, I shut up. I am not stupid.

Grandma pulls me aside, now that we are all one big happy family inside this bedroom!, into the bathroom. She tries to communicate to me in our Spanglish-Sign Language, that the plumbing is not so good. Don’t put anything in the toilet except those things which should normally go in a toilet. Got it, Granny. I will not try to flush Mr. Big’s head down there at any time during the ensuing evening. Finally, after Granny and Gramps depart, we, of course, crack up and fall back upon the bed in relief.

Ouch! Big mistake! The mattress, it would appear, had also not been replaced since 1946. It was so hard that we were getting bruised just laying on it. It was like reclining on a slab of concrete, except the concrete would have been just a hair more comfortable.

Next time I will tell you about our favorite village in Tuscany, Greve in Chianti. We did not stay there, either, but that is a story for another day.

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