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!
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.
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.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.