To everyone’s disappointment except my parents’, no this italian romance is not about any particular tanned, pizza making, well dressed Italian boys.
When I thought I couldn’t be any more impressed by Italy’s delights, I find another landscape, another town, person or meal which blows my mind and makes me wonder why on earth any Italians would ever want to leave their own country. Each day my Auntie Anne and I marvel at how we’ve had ‘another day in paradise’ and wonder how the next day could top our previous one, but it seems to.
I’ll pick up from where I left off, having a relaxing apperitivo at a bar in Lucca. Here we made friends with the owners who – once finding out we’re from Australia – said they’d love to do a swap for a few months and we could live in their house and work in the bar. I think I said ‘si, si, si!’ far too enthusiastically for someone who doesn’t have a house in Australia (or a job for that matter). This apperitivo thing here is the best. We bought one drink each, mine was some red, raspberry looking thing mixed with soda water but was far from tasty and I had to dilute it with cups of water because I felt like I was drinking straight vodka. No, that wasn’t why apperitivo is the best. But with this €2.50 drink we were invited to take a plate and help ourselves to the buffet table – paninis, chips, rice salad, olives, cheese, sundried tomatoes, any tasty delicacy you could think of. We felt a part of their family and it is safe to say we had a light dinner that night. Watching groups of friends and couples walk in and enjoy their one drink after work with their friends before returning home for dinner looked like the life. On our return we bumped into one of Anne’s friends who, Anne being Anne, had met years ago at a market and had kept in contact and met up with each time she returned. We organised to go for coffee at 9pm that night, where I spent most of the time nodding and ‘si’ing while Anne and him conversed in Italian. But it was good fun!
The next day was Easter (Pasqua) and I was off to Firenze to see the Scoppio Del Carro at the Duormo. Anne’s friend Iman had offered to walk me to the station in the morning and help me buy tickets, insisting that he’d be up anyway so it was no trouble. We were getting near the station with about 12 minutes until my train. Great, I thought, I have enough time to get my tickets and stand on the platform and not be worried about missing it. But Iman then asked me if I wanted to have a coffee. I saw the bar next to the station and thought oh yeah, I guess we have enough time but no, he was talking about a cafe outside the station, around the corner. So we walked (8 mins to go) and then found it was closed, walked back around thinking hmm, I will have to hurry to get to my platform (6 mins to go). But as we get to the station, and I’m ready to say thankyou and goodbye he says ‘plenty of time’ (well i think he did, it was in italian, so couldve been saying ‘get on the train you stupid australian with your fake rayban sunglasses’) and then proceeds to indicate that we should get a coffee at the station’s cafe (4 mins to go) and with a very alarmed look on my face, agree. He then asked me if I wanted a croissant too and I thought, look I can skull a coffee but I can’t add a croissant to the challenge so I say no, because I am already quite full to be honest. He orders two coffees (3 mins to go) and then chooses out a croissant for me which I politely but very reluctantly accept. As we receive our coffees (2 mins to go) he casually sips his espresso as my heart is racing, trying to get this 400 calorie post-breakfast breakfast into me in as little time as possible while not looking like an idiot (1 minute to go). I’ve set a world record time for croissant and coffee consumption and stress in my best italian/english that it really is time to go to the platform (30 seconds to go). Ready to say thankyou and sprint to my platform, he says/indicates/points to say he’ll come with me to the platform and show me how to validate my ticket. So we walk/stroll/wander towards the platform (15 seconds to go) and arrive at the platform where I stick my ticket into the machine as the train comes into the platform. I don’t understand how, but I’ve made my train and survived the stress with only an overly full stomach and an overly quick heart rate.
I spend my train ride recovering and reading Bill Bryson’s ‘Neither here nor there’ which depicts a comically accurate representation of European towns and people. I walk with the rest of the city’s occupants towards the duormo where all the excitement is to happen. And it was exciting! At 11am a dove flew out and this cart infront of the duormo started sending off fireworks. Well I think they did, thats what I could see in the person’s camera 3m ahead of me. Once upon a time height was an advantage in this situation, and then it was if you put your phone in the air but not even they secure a good view now with the selfie sticks filling in the 4m space above head height. After all this craziness I went to find 1. My cousin and auntie and 2. A toilet which I won’t have to pay more than 50c for but failed at both and ended up at the markets again. After some dodgy italian I eventually found my cousin and auntie’s hotel. Maree and Emilie are spending over a month in Europe and the timing just worked out perfectly. It was Maree’s (mother of 10) first time ever out of the country so she was looking very, very relaxed and comfortable away from her crazy household. It was so great seeing them and getting a dose of home, especially on Easter Sunday!
After a steep but rewarding walk up to Piazza San Michaelangelo where I chatted with some other english speakers whilst looking over the entire Firenze I was ready to return to Lucca.
Anne and I dined on pizza for our easter celebrations and came home for a sneaky tim tam slam because I realised I hadn’t even eaten chocolate on easter!
Monday morning was an earlyish rise to travel to Grosseto to meet Anne’s friend Jock who lives in a small hilltop town in countryside Tuscany. He is an Australian with the lifelong aspiration of being Italian and our few days with him were incredible. I can’t even describe and my photos don’t capture the beauty we saw as we drove through the rolling green hills of vineyards, olive trees and paddocks. In an ecstatic state we arrived at his petite, truly tuscan house covered in vines and in want of a better word, cuteness. He treated us to a delicious mix of plates for lunch which he, in true chef style ‘had prepared earlier’. All his meals were magnificent: made from authentic and organic local produce, making Anne and I feel very embarrassed about how our staple dinner for the previous week had been store-bought frittata and salad.
With content bellies we then went for a drive to the hilltop town of Rocca Diorcia which, like every place we went to had breathtaking views and rich historic significance. Not that I ever got tired of it. After a cuppa we then went for a very scenic drive along the green hills until our views turned white… We were all of a sudden in snow! Within the space of a few minutes our scenery had changed completely and we saw houses covered in snow that looked like they belong on a christmas card, not in tuscany! Still on a high, I went for a run when we got back to the house. I must’ve looked crazy as I laughed my way down the hill’s ridge, looking out on either side of me at the beautiful mountain views. I can’t believe that I’m not dreaming. Sorry Mt Riverview pathway, but you’ve got nothing on this route. We were very fulfilled after a day of activities and some delicious Jock-made, Tuscan creations for dinner.
After our seemingly perfect first day, we wondered how it could get any better – but it did. After breakfast came some snow! It still impresses me every time seeing it wispily make its way down from above and then disappear as it touches the ground. After this momentary treat, we made our way to Pienza where we walked around and had lunch at a restaurant that could’ve been from Faulty Towers. It was so funny watching the chef/waiter/boss run around, trying to serve his overflowing restaurant while also keeping his very new waiter in check. Pienza was beautiful and interesting – seeing the Priests’ romantic walk which goes past the road of luck, then love, then kiss, then darkness. The Bath town called Bagno Vignoni was gorgeous and would be an ideal place for a relaxing ‘treat yo self’ holiday but this was not in our itinerary (or budget). So we went back to Casa di Jock and went for another ‘pinch yo self’ run before helping/learning to cook an italian buffet! I think I was probably more of a hinderance than a helper but nonetheless it was fun.
The next day (Wednesday the 8th April) was one of my favourite ever days. Fuelled myself with eggs and toast and we drove to the hilltop town of Montalcino which has a very impressive fort and very impressive views. After a walk around, shop and lunch over looking the whole of tuscany we moved on to our last major stop off – Sant Antimo abbey. This monastery for monks is placed in a valley with perfectly assorted vineyards, olive farms and grassland bordering and encapsulating it. Surrounding the church is a field of daisies and olive trees which made picnics here ideal… For some. But for me, I felt like I was in the dream scene of a movie where they run/leap through the field of daisies towards the rolling hills. After this ecstatic act we just lay in the daisies looking at the green hills and blue sky in the surprisingly very warm sun. Another run in the afternoon meant another dose of happiness, as I ran through fields and bushland (which I later realised was private property), all looking over this unbelievable view. The high availability of sun meant Anne and I stayed out reading for a while before going in again for dinner (food made up a large proportion of our itinerary). This dinner did not disappoint and Jock once again set out plates and plates of deliciousness. For our last night, we stayed up chatting away, getting very philosophical and emotional. It was such a great way to end our magic trip together, bonding over cheese and wine.
The next morning was for packing and gloomy farewells, to Jock, the house and the hills. I definitely want to return one day, so hopefully it is more of a see you later than a goodbye.
Because the train back to Lucca included a change at Pisa, I thought I’d make the most of it and explore the city for a while. I wasn’t expecting much but discovered the most beautiful streets and river with those iconic coloured houses with green shutters of which Italy is so well recognised. I had no desire to rejoin the masses of tourists that I knew would be at the leaning tower so I didn’t even venture there, but spent my day sitting in a cafe looking over the bridges, reading my book in the sun. I was happy.
Returned to Lucca and Anne and did the chores before heading out for an apperitivo at our usual cafe. Had a quiet night eating pasta with tuna. A bit different from Jock’s usual extravaganza, but still delicious.
The Friday was my last full day in Lucca and oh did we pack it all in. Poor Anne. I woke up, did the shopping and then went for a run twice around the walls which made me feel better about all this pasta I’ve been eating and let me admire the italians and italian scenery. Breakfast then a trip to the cafe in our favourite square, followed by a little walk around and some chores. Because the weather was too good to hide from – I was wearing shorts and a shirt for the first time this year – we decided to make ourselves a little picnic and go and sit on the wall and enjoy. And enjoy we did! we spent the afternoon chatting and lying in the sun. Although Auntie Anne has always been a big part of my life growing up, we’ve never really spent much time together and so this trip was such a great opportunity to learn about her and everything she’s been through, good and bad. I never knew or appreciated all the amazing things she’s done, especially in terms of travelling and organising how she wants to live her life. When you travel you get put in situations and go through things which you just wouldn’t encounter over dinner in Sydney. I think we will always look back on this trip and be able to laugh and cherish the crazy yet fun times we had.
A bike ride was next on the agenda before dinner and I’ve never seen a chronic fatigue patient pedal as hard as Anne did. She was a speed demon and I was trying to look casual while working my legs hard to catch up. Just to make it clear (and save my skin) I was applying no pressure to be speedy so all harm, soreness and tiredness she received afterwards was completely self inflicted. Luckily Anne did stop after 15 minutes but I spent the next 45 riding along the wall and through the streets, feeling very italian.
To celebrate our last night together, we went out for dinner where we were adventurous and had rabbit and polenta stew and fish and polenta stew. It came time to choose our gelato, the waiter said we could have all 3 choices in one bowl (a special for us) and kept giving us refills on the icecream. Anne couldn’t decide between a fruit tiramisu or a coffee one, and so he did both. Each being a proper serving. We probably had about 5 servings of dessert between the two of us for the price of 2. I love italians.
A somber night spent packing and being very full led into a sad morning of goodbyes and see you in December. Our time together went so quickly. But of course, no adventure can ever go smoothly.
I rushed off to the usually deserted station with 15 minutes to spare and found a malto long cue that was winding out the door. Getting frustrated I tried the ticket machines but they let me down and didn’t work so I joined the human line.
After spending 13 minutes tapping my foot waiting for the line to lessen and the person in front of me to finish showing the ticket lady photos of her niece and daughter I finally got to the front with 2 minutes until my train. But the ticket lady then looks at me and says ‘I’m taking a coffee break, come back in 15 mins’. I stand there in disbelief and see my train come into the station and then off into the distance. The next train didn’t come for another 3 hours because of their ‘shut down the city for lunch’ regime so I went off in a huff in search of wifi and a coffee. But after a reality check and a tim tam slam I got over it and began to get excited about the next part of my italian adventure.
So I’m still very much infatuated and very much excited for the next part of my trip – my dream place, Cinque Terre!