Adventures in the Casentino


I decided to take a day trip to Arezzo on my first day out. My primary acquaintance with this beautiful medieval town was having seen its most famous work of art, the Chimaera, while it was on display at the Getty Villa. 


It was a stormy afternoon with rain spitting down at various intervals, but it didn’t diminish my appreciation of the ancient city at all. A beautiful, open park sits at the top of the hill, bordered by the church to one side, the castle on the other, and the old city wall surrounding all of it. I felt like I was in a Robin Hood movie. It was entrancing. 


The day before, Arezzo had celebrated the Saracen Joust, in which mounted knights joust against a wooden effigy of a Saracen. As I walked around the main square, metal grandstands and the dirt track were being removed. 


Every time it rained, I’d duck in for a glass of red wine or stop at a bar for a sweet and a caffe. I concluded my day with a visit to the archaeological museum and the ruins of a Roman arena. The museum had a number of artifacts dating back to the Etruscan settlements, and the woman at the front desk struck up a conversation, half in English, half in Italian. We chatted for about 10 minutes, and I was feeling more and more confident in my ability to communicate with very few words. Afterwards, she let me out into the courtyard to explore the Roman ruins on my own. On a rainy day with no one around, it was magical to be up close with such an old structure. 

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An Italian Drive


After two days in Pisa, I embarked on the part of my travels that I had fretted over the most: four days driving through Tuscany and into the forests of the Casentino. Driving. In Italy. I had been warned. But I didn’t care. I wanted to see this mountainous, forested area full of wildlife and medieval towns and monasteries. So I rented a Fiat 500L, christened him “Uberto”, and set off. 

I wound up taking the wrong road, which led me on a slight tour through the Chianti hills. Boy, tough life. 


I discovered right away that once you get off the Autostrade, the Italian road signs don’t give you much warning. As a result, I was driving slowly (also known as the speed limit), and annoying a lot of Italians in the process. Actually, they were more considerate drivers than I had been led to believe, and mostly put up with my plodding pace until I could pull over and let them past. 

As I observed the other drivers, I realized that in Italy, it is entirely up to the merging car to fit in somewhere. Having a quick touch on the gas helps, which was a problem for me. You see, Uberto was a diesel and an automatic, which meant he got great mileage, but his acceleration was somewhat…delayed. Starts from a dead stop went something like this:

Me: Ok Uberto, let’s go! *floors gas *

Uberto:rrrrrRRR…wait did you check the map?rrrrRRRRR…ooh! look! a castle!rrrrRRRR…Squirrel!

A view from the Consuma Pass


Uberto also had a party trick. If I stepped on the brake with medium force, he would come to a stop. If I stepped on the brake with solid force, he would come to a stop and turn off the engine, only to restart when I lifted my foot. I’m sure this is intended to save gas when at a full stop, but as I stopped to make a left turn on a busy country highway, it scared the crap out of me. 

My host, Roberta, had thoughtfully provided turn-by-turn directions which led me off the highway and through a village called Caiano. Once outside the village, I turned from a road that could barely let two cars pass, to a road that definitely would not accommodate two cars. This took me into the hamlet of Ristonchi. If you’re wondering, here are my definitions:

Town: possessing a handful of roads, businesses etc.

Village: possessing one public road, a church (probably)  and one or two small businesses. 

Hamlet: possessing no more than a dozen dwellings and either a church or a cafe, but not both. 

A view of the village of Caiano. These mountains are dotted with dozens of these small communities.


I arrived early, ahead of Roberta, but her mother was there to show me the cottage. She asked if I understood Italian, and I told her “poco”.  She took that and ran with it, and between speaking slowly and hand gestures, I got about 70%.  Then Roberta showed up and took over after a short discussion with her mother which seemed to go like this:

Roberta: Mom, what are you doing? She doesn’t speak Italian. 

Mama: We’re doing fine!  She understands!

Roberta: Mom, you’re not going to be able to explain the electricity no matter how much you wave your hands!

Mama: She understands. 

It was utterly charming. 

Hanging out my wash

The cottage was a good 25 minute drive from the nearest alimentare (market) or restaurant. I had to wash any clothes by hand and line dry them. Because it was up a mountain, I often brought groceries back up so I wouldn’t have to drive that little road in the dark, and spent the evening cooking pasta and sipping delicious local wine. It was heaven. After all the busyness of the cities, it was so nice to have relaxed days with lots of quiet time to reflect. I quickly made friends with Roberta’s cat, Lola, whose mid-morning sunbathing embodied relaxation. 

A piece of Pisa


   The trip to Pisa was a quick decision made because I wanted to see a festival of some sort while in Italy. In Pisa, this is the festival of San Ranieri, celebrated every 17th of June. The night before is the Luminara, when 110,000 candles light up the buildings on both sides of the Arno, and fireworks are set off at 11pm. The next day, a traditional boat race is held in which four wooden boats of eight rowers row upstream to a floating platform. At the platform, a single man on each boat scales a rope 30 feet in the air to grab a flag. Sounded like fun. 

   At about 5pm, people started lining the street along the Arno. Stands with sweets, drinks and carnival food came out, and the fireworks got prepped on small rafts in the center of the river. At most, they were 200 feet from the riverbank, and I couldn’t help thinking, “This would never fly in the US”.  While sitting along the Arno, waiting for the show to start, I met a lovely couple. The man was from the US and his wife is Pisan, so I took advantage of their English to ask about San Ranieri. Neither knew his story, and it took four family members to piece together a story of a thief and a profligate who repented. I’m still not sure that their story was accurate. 

Sweet stalls sell marzipan candies and a savory cookie with Anise called Brigidini.

This small barge of fireworks was about 150 feet in front of me.


The Luminara was spectacular. Churches and buildings just glowed. The fireworks, timed to music, went on for about 45 minutes and were stunning. As I headed back to my lodging from the Arno, it began to rain. Far from discouraging the revelers, umbrellas and tents came out, and young people were dancing in the rain. I wish I had gotten them on film. 

The next morning, I headed over to the Piazza dei Miracoli to see Pisa’s most famous feature. And holy cow, does that thing lean. 

I wasn’t planning to climb it (Climb a tiny spiral staircase inside a building that’s falling over with a bunch of tourists? Great!), but when I arrived, they had a spot available in twenty minutes. So I went. Why not?

And it was terrific. So glad I went. At the bottom I took this photo which shows you exactly how much this tower leans. Freaky, right?

In addition to the tower, the Piazza houses the basilica, a Baptistry, and a cemetery. The Baptistry is famous for having beautiful acoustics, and while I was there, a docent came out to demonstrate.  Check out the link: Pisa Baptistry Acoustics

The cemetery is arranged in a rectangle with burials in the floor and walls. The inner courtyard was filled entirely with dirt brought from Jerusalem, apparently. The frescoes on the wall were receiving some badly needed restoration. 

Medieval artists were none to shy about detailing exactly what would happen to you if you misbehaved.


All of the streets surrounding the piazza were full of more sweet stalls and vendors selling everything from pet turtles to frying pans. The atmosphere was festive, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. I treated myself to some marzipan and sat out on the grass enjoying the beautiful day. 

A perfect picnic spot. All kinds of folks were sitting out in the sun against the medieval city walls.

Among the crowd of tourists pretending to push over/ hold up the tower was this fellow, carrying a rainbow flag that said “Pace”. Peace.

The Brigidini machines were mesmerizing. And I had to sample from several stalls. You know, for quality control.


After the beauty and excitement of the Luminara, the race was almost anticlimactic. It was still something to see the decorative wooden boats, but if it were up to me, I’d hold the race in the daylight hours. Still, I managed to find the most delicious gelato in all of Italy, tucked inconspicuously next to a small bar in the Piazza Garibaldi. 

The boats are lit up for the nighttime contest. My contrada (district), Santa Maria, wound up winning!

When Italy plays in the Euro cup, everyone heads to the bar.

These huge wooden boats are rowed 1500 meters upstream where one man jumps onto the platform and climbs a rope in order to win.

Burano


For my last day in Venice I planned to get out to Burano, famous for delicious seafood and brightly painted houses. I spent the morning wandering; having caffè and a cornetto here, strolling through a church or two there, before making my way to the vaporetto stop that runs out to the islands. I didn’t take many photos because I simply wanted to enjoy. That and the expedition I took to find what must be the only public bathroom in Venice filled the morning. 

Burano also has a leaning tower. To be honest, lots of things in Venice lean. They’re old and built on water. I took the stairs too quickly in my flat one day and almost crashed into the wall of the stairwell. 

The island is lovely and I took lots of time to stroll and enjoy it. At lunch I decided to be brave and try some new dishes. Burano is famous for its spaghetti with squid’s ink. Why not?  And since they had octopus in oil and lemon on the menu(and I firmly believe octopi are not to be trusted) I had a plate of that too. It was fantastic. 

The island has a beautiful green park to compliment all those bright houses. It was a calming and beautiful end to my time in Venice. 

Venice was a beautiful experience. There were things I didn’t get to do, like see a concert or a Commedia performance, mostly because I wasn’t there long enough. I’ll be back, and for longer next time. This city is a unique gem, and I enjoyed every minute. That being said, they could use a few more public restrooms 😉

Ah, Venice


Even though I vowed that Venice would be all about pleasure, I did have one major sightseeing event planned. Some time ago I signed up for the “Secret Itineraries” tour of the Doge’s Palace. It seems that, while audiences and public events were happening in halls like this

the powerful decision makers were actually operating in rooms like this.

Inside the walls of the palace is a maze of small rooms that housed secret archives, the offices of the council of 10 and cells for wealthy/political prisoners. It was from this part of the palace that Cassanova famously escaped. This tour was only opened to the public two years ago, and they only take 20 at a time, three times a day. Here are some of the cool/terrifying things we saw:

See that cabinet in the corner? It opens into a concealed passageway that we took to get there.

These are the beams holding the ceiling up. We’re in the Doge’s attic.

This little device was used to hoist prisoners up by their arms until they confessed. Lovely.

Cassanova’s cell. He and a priest in the next cell tunneled out through the ceiling, then onto the roof, into the main hall and out the front door the next morning. Since they were well-dressed, no one thought to stop them.


After the behind- the-scenes look, I cruised around the palace in general. “Opulent” is the adjective I’m gonna go with. 

It had been raining steadily all morning, but by the time I crossed the Bridge of Sighs and exited the prisons, the sun was out. 

This bridge got its name from the legend that prisoners would get their last look at Venice here before they were locked away.


After a quick but it was off to the Dorsoduro neighborhood where my only goal apart from exploring was to find Commedia Dell’Arte masks. This was a form of theatre popular from the Renaissance forward. Every troupe improvised lines around general plot constructs which involved the same set of stock characters. An actor would often play one character for most of their career. 

This is Brighella. He is a higher class servant who is conniving and speaks badly of others. A general malcontent. Think Thomas from Downton Abbey, Season 1.

  I decided to treat myself for dinner and made a reservation at Oliva Nera. This restaurant is owned by a lady named Isabella and run by her family. My parents had stayed in a flat she owns when they were in Venice. As it turns out, their flat was just up the street from mine, and the restaurant was barely 50 yards away. And what a dinner it was. From start to limoncello, I’ve rarely had such a good meal. 

Isabella’s son talked me into limoncello with a simple “My mother makes it herself”. Sold.


And because I decided Venice would be about pleasure, I went for a post-dinner ride down the Grand Canal on the vaporetto. I was not disappointed. 

This city is magical. You’ll get lost over and over and it won’t matter. Everywhere is full of music and light and the sound of lapping water. Tomorrow: Burano

Ciao Venezia!

Venice is another city with a fascination for cool door decorations.

Hobbit-style doors with a single, central pull are especially popular


I arrived on a perfect lovely day and couldn’t stop saying, “I’m in Venice!”  Florence was all about art and intellect for me, as well as a healthy dose of beauty. But I have determined to make Venice all about pleasure. If I want to walk, I’ll do so without a pressing destination. If I want to ride the vaporetto I’ll do it whenever I jolly well please (I bought a three day pass, so might as well).  If I decide  that gelato-o’clock comes around twice a day then it does!

Gelato-o’clock

Though packed to the gills with tourists, this is another city that sings. The bells toll from every corner several times a day, the gondolieri and workmen whistle and hum, and then there’s this:https://youtu.be/eyYrWKGTSV4

I caught her singing when I turned down a random tiny street and then the gondola pulled into view. Perfetto. 

I’m staying in a charming flat on the third floor with a beautiful view. 

I wandered and tried to get the lay of the land all afternoon until I realized I’d just have to give it up. There is no “lay of the land” here. Not in any meaningful sense. The best you can hope for is a general sense of direction. But what a wonderful place to get lost. 

The old city well system

I love all of the buildings with Moorish influence


I wasn’t going to cook here since I’m only staying for three nights, but then I noticed that every tiny shop had fresh made pasta. You can’t pass that up. So I stopped by a little place just down from my flat and picked up Ravioli con funghi (with mushrooms) and it turned into this. 

And he had Prosecco, so of course I picked some up. And then I decided to drink it in the bath. 

As I said, Venice will be all about pleasure. 

Farewell, Firenze


It is hard to put into words just what Florence has meant to me. I’ve only been here five short days, but in them has been so much life. The joy and trepidation of traveling alone, for starters. Women in Italy don’t often travel alone, it seems. When people find out I’m on my own, they seem to think I’m either brave or sad. Admittedly, it would be wonderful to share this with a friend or significant other, but there is an adventure and self-affirming nature to solo travel. And sometimes, it is for the best. 

On my last day, I soaked up every inch of Florence. I started with the Pitti Palace, the residence of the illustrious Medicis, and the stunning Boboli gardens. I can tell you now, the Medicis lacked neither money nor ego.  

The commode 

Every room in their apartments was dedicated to a different Greek god, and the frescoes often featured a member of the family as a god or hero. Subtle. 

This was my favorite work in their collection. A boy apprentice. His look of concentration is so childlike and endearing. 


Isn’t this a place Mr. Darcy would own?
The grounds were magnificent, and I took long minutes to sprawl under a tree and watch the ducks in the pond. 


Soon enough it was time to move on to the Uffizzi Gallery, the finest collection of Italian paintings  in the world. Yet for all that, it was my least favorite museum. Sure there were recognizable masterpieces. 

But the museum is poorly organized to cope with the traffic flow, and many rooms are roped off, making works inaccesible. Maybe paintings aren’t my thing or maybe I was bordering on museum overload, but I started taking pictures of everything that seemed to warrant a funny caption. Here are some favorites:

How I feel when people tell me I handle stressful situations well. 

The look my students give me when I nerd out about history. 

My struggle in Costco or Home Depot. Every time. “Yes, I’d like that one.”

How I feel when I get home from the theatre and slip into my jammies.

“Stop eyeballing my apple, dude.  Get your own. ”

Somehow the thought of John the Baptist whispering “This is really gonna hurt, bro” in the baby Jesus’ ear right before giving him a purple nurple makes them feel more relatable.  Why did the artist choose this pose of all possible poses?

“OMG, dude. Check it.”

“I know. Those scrunchies are hella unflattering”

Clearly, I was distracted. But that’s ok, because the news when I got back to the apartment was far too serious. That’s when I found out about the Orlando shooting at the Pulse club. I was planning to go to Santa Croce for mass, but I couldn’t do it. I wanted to be alone with my grief. To experience a national tragedy while abroad feels so helpless. It would feel distant were it not for my ability to see the distraught and hurt social media posts of my family and friends. The people I love are hurting and I’m not able to be there with them. I thought about canceling my dinner reservations, but in the end, decided to go. 

I had plenty of anxiousness about eating alone, especially when I didn’t feel like celebrating at all, but I crossed the Arno to the Osteria Del Cinghiale Bianco (Osteria of the White Boar).  The beauty of the river itself lifted my spirits. 


And then I sat down to a wonderful meal on a rainy night in Florence. 

About halfway through, a lovely couple from London, Navka and Kaushil, were seated next to me. We got to chatting and I soon escaped my sadness as they told me how Kaushil had whisked Navka away for the weekend so he could propose to her. 

We closed the place down. It was a perfect reminder that whenever I feel anxious or sad, there are lovely people to meet and great times to be had. It is important to go out and reconnect with the world, because there is great joy in doing so. 

For these reasons it would be hard to put into words what Florence has meant to me. Even a short time can leave a deep mark. From the depths of my heart, Grazie, Firenze.