Tuesday, 1 May 2007

San Gimignano

After our great day at Volterra we were reinvigorated for travelling to San Gimignano. We got up (relatively) early, fetched our car from the garage and headed on our way. After a pleasant drive through the Tuscan countryside we were in for a bit of a rude shock at S. Gimignano where we found the parking lots once again full to capacity.

Eventually we just sat in a queue at one parking lot and waited for one car after another to leave until finally our car was allowed in. I found myself a spot even the Italians seemed reluctant to risk their cars in and we made our way up the steps into town. Once inside the town we grabbed a Cappuccino at the nearest bar to help regain our senses [Note by Linda: Mark is skipping over a rather sore point here - while he stood, posing, with his tiny tiny coffee with a shocking lack of solidarity, the official Sickie of the trip (me) had to have tea. Oh, the scorn, the withering scorn!I'm kind of surprised they didn't gather together and drive me out of the country there and then].

It was incredibly crowded, with a flood of people pouring down the street from Piazza Del Duomo. We made our way up this street amongst all the medieval buildings and the famous towers of S. Gimignano.

On the towers: originally there was 72 of them, built as a symbol of family wealth and power, but over the years S. Gimignano declined in power as a result of feuding with neighboring towns, and not helped by the black plague, most of the towers are no more. It has to be said my expectation was that the towers be a little more disneyland-esque; perhaps only the most robust examples have withstood the test of time.

S. Gimignano is a lovely town, with the medieval streets and the towers, but the crowds certainly detracted. I think we picked a particularly bad day to visit as the following Tuesday was Worker's Day and many Italians would have taken the long weekend off.
(As an aside, I developed a new method of taking self-portraits with my heavy DSLR, by holding it upside down. New method still results in a double-chin.)

In Piazza della Cisterna we grabbed a gelato from the Gelateria di Piazza made famous by Sergio Dondoli, which is now so famous the menu is on a plasma screen and neon lights adorn the entrance. Linda had the special made-from-local-wine (Vernaccia) gelato while I copped out with cioccolato e pistacchio.

I also decide Macchiato is my new Caffé of choice. Less milky than a Cappuccino, more consistently made within Italy than a Caffé Latte, not so rich as an Espresso, and very affordable (typically 85c)! [Note: plus it's much easier to pose with. Don't mind me, I'll be the ostracised one with the tea in the corner]

Anyway, in the end we wandered around some more before deciding we might leave for a while and come back later in the day when there was less tourists (apparently it is quite nice once all the day-trippers take off). Once we left, however, we decided we might just keep driving.

Instead of returning to S. Gimignano we decided to take the slow-road back to Florence via the Chianti. To get to the Chianti region, however, we had to pass through Poggibonsi. The place the Rough Guide to Italy describes only as 'ugly industrial'.

Abandon all hope those who enter Poggibonsi. It is a nightmare of sign-posts leading you in a seamingly endless tour of the plainest of suburbs in all of Italy. The signs seemed to be conspiring to keep us there, as nothing else could have compelled us to stay. We soon thought we might never leave and began to giggle hysterically at the prospect [Some of us did, anyway. One of us, in the role of the official navigator, may have lost their mind long before].

I think we must have missed one of the signs, however, as eventually we did actually escape Poggibonsi and continued on our way.

Il Chianti

After a bit of driving we stopped near an old convent for a bite to eat..

.. and before too long we were in Castellina in Chianti, another nice town with a distinguishing wall around the city that had been built over by houses and shops to form a tunnel around the perimeter (Via del Volte). There is a festival in May, where people dress up but in medieval gear, but I don't think we'll be going back for that.

Next stop was Radda in Chianti, another nice town. Grapes, rolling countryside.. yawn! Okay so maybe it takes more than a drive-by to appreciate these places.

Finally we went to Greve in Chianti, or at least that's where we thought we were.

Actually we were in Vitigliano, or that is my best guess after a retrospective look at the map. This town has a tiny historical centre which we spent some time wandering around trying to figure out the landmarks mentioned in our Lonely Planet. Eventually we cracked and decided it was late enough for an early dinner and wandered into a nice Trattoria with a view over the countryside.

When we eventually hit the road we shortly drove through Greve and I have to say we may have made a lucky mistake staying in Vitigliano as Greve seemed a little lacking in personality. Or maybe I was just wanting to get home by this time.

We Return to Firenze
Since we had left quite early, we expected to be home at a sensible hour for a good night's sleep. We didn't account for the Italian road system, however. All was fine on the approach to Florence, but at some point we had to take an on-ramp to the Autostrada and it all went pear-shaped. To cut a long story short (only because there is an uncut long story coming up) we drove around in circles aimlessly for at least an hour before taking the policy of driving in one direction long enough that we saw a sign pointing back at Florence, and then simply not deviating from that path regardless of what any other sign might want us to do.

This is where we had to drop the car. Doesn't look to bad, right? Well imagine this doesn't show anywhere near the full extent of the one-way streets (which is pretty much complete), nor the ZTL (traffic limited zone restricting access to Florence to (un)certain hours), and the fact that there was some road closures (near the U.S Embassy, so I'm just going to go ahead and blame them for that part), the vague/contradictory/incorrect road signs, and we were close to tears by the time we managed to find ourselves on Borgo Ognissanti.

Once there our plan was to avoid the risk of traversing the ZTL during its hours of operation by parking right by the Europcar office and return it first thing in the morning. There was a slight problem with this plan, as the entire street is a 24h tow-away zone, but by this stage we were so terrified by the prospect of navigating the labarynth of one-way streets we gave up and paid out 20Euros to the nearest garage and let them handle the rest while we walked shakily home.

All in all our first outing in a car in Tuscany left us a little scarred, but it was certainly worth it.

1 comment:

Delina said...

Great blog and photos! I love the Chianti area. We went to Florence a few weekends ago, but didn't make it into Chianti this time. Hopefully we'll make it back up there some time soon.