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Category: Naked Man on Main Street

Hanging in Firenze

Yes, when the Italians kept questioning my sanity when I was headed to Fidenza instead of Firenze, it was because they knew anyone would be pazzo to go to the former rather than the latter.

Florence is my kind of city. Vibrant, gorgeous, and very user-friendly. Easy to get around (though a bit easy to get lost while navigating the many tiny streets), and you can choose to go the museum route, the church route, or just wander aimlessly and absorb the vibe. Since I’ve been here before, I’ve been doing just that: taking it all in and meandering the streets.

I’ve been staying at a hostel which is actually pretty nice, all things considered. The location is unbeatable, just steps from the Duomo, which I find to be such a breathtaking masterpiece of architecture. Walking down my street, I’m taken aback by it’s imposing presence just 50 meters away — it fills the panorama. Of course when you get to the piazza del Duomo, it’s overrun with throngs of tourists and vendors selling amazingly useless tchotchkes that somebody must buy. There’s such a buzz of activity, it’s very infectious. But also makes you want to get far away from the influx of tourists ;-). I also love the Piazza della Signoria, just a few blocks away. It’s where the gorgeous Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery are located. The Piazza is filled with statues (including the fake David that some people actually think is the real one!). My favorite is Perseus holding the head of Medusa.

On Thursday night I headed over to Trattoria Nella, one of my daughters favorite restaurants in Florence where we ate last fall when we visited her. A terrific little local place, reminded me of Cheers, where everybody knows your name. There was a couple from California there, and we all got to talking with the owner, who is a professional french horn player and was performing in Rigoletto on Friday night. I’d hoped to make it to it but timing just didn’t work out. Just as well as it turns out it wasn’t where I thought it was so might have been lost, as it turns out the California couple was and never found it. There were a handful of the owners friends just hanging around the place, and one, who reminded me of the opera signer Andrea Bocelli, was a self-appointed DJ with a fondness for the BeeGees, alas. But what was funny is with every song he joined in, like his own personal karaoke, wailing with the falsettos and all. It was quite hilarious.

On Friday I just meandered about the city, worked my way across to the Oltrarno, across the River Arno. When we were last hear last November, the Arno was raging with flood waters after record heavy rains. Now it seems a bit stagnant, still with the heat of summer lingering. It’s still a lovely view from the Ponte Santa Trinita, looking across to the tourist-overrun Ponte Vecchio. At the other end of the Ponte Santa Trinita is the best gelato at Gelateria Santa Trinita, so it’s a daily destination ;-). I also made it to my daughters (and my) favorite pizzeria, Gusta Pizza, down the Via Maggio a few blocks and over toward the Piazza San Spirito. I sat in the shade on the church steps and wrote for a few hours, very peaceful (albeit with a little pigeon-shooing a necessity). Speaking of pigeons, I saw another dead one — this is getting ridiculous!

Friday night I was lucky enough to get a reservation at a tiny osteria we’d been to last year — had heard good things about it, but then it was booked for ever, yet they had one time slot available Friday night, fortunately. I was shocked that Tomasso, whose parents own the restaurant and who oversees it himself, remembered me from when we were there last November. He even remembered what we’d ordered! So surprising. He was delightful and treated me like a friend, and even offered to let me return Monday for dinner, despite there being no reservations. Apparently in the past year their restaurant, which has been around for 27 years, got ranked as one of the top restaurants in Florence. It’s fabulous, homemade pastas, just delightful, simple yet awesome food.

After dinner I wandered into the Piazza della Signoria again, and caught some of the Italy/Bulgaria World Cup qualifying match that was on a large screen on a nearby restaurant patio. Then I heard what sounded like a marching band, and saw around the corner in front of the Palazzo Vecchio was a large municipal band, and a host of performers. It was so sweet — there were baton twirlers, then ballet dancers, and folk dancers, and some noted conductor. I managed to get a seat on the ground in front and hung out there for a while.

On my way back to the hotel I heard a loud crowd a few blocks away, and a street performer who’d held the audience in his thrall the night before was at it again. Amazing, he had at least 100 people gathered around, and while he engaged his audience with his schtick, I think the biggest draw was that he played his music very loud, and it was sort of patriotic marching music that drew people in. I’m sure he was making lots of money.

I saw a girl of about 12 standing atop the back rack of her fathers bicycle — quite a balancing act on both of their parts. I can’t imagine tooling through the streets (and wending through hoards of tourists) that way! I also saw a dog planted not so securely on the floorboard of his owners motorcycle!

I’ve seen a lot of tshirts with references to moustaches on them. Not gonna ask.

And I laugh at the many women who force their boyfriends and husbands to take countless glamor shouts of them in front of famous works. They’ll be walking along and then the woman jams her cell phone or camera into the guy’s hand, no questions asked, then she strikes her pose, to the side, jutting out her ample breasts or behind, and he snaps away. It’s like a silent “Yes, dear.”

I’m amazed at how many Russians are here — wherever I go hear I hear Russian being spoken.

Yesterday I wandered again, working my way to the Giardini di Boboli. The Boboli Gardens are part of the Palazzo Pitti, a massive Renaissance Palace in the Oltranaro. I’ve never toured inside, only been in the gardens, which are a sight to behold. I think I’ll try to get to the palace either today or Tuesday. I was intent on finding one of my favorite statues, it’s actually quite bizarre, it’s of Bacchus astride a turtle, looks like he’s had quite a night of partying. I bought a deck of cards with that picture on the back for Kyle years ago because I thought it was so funny, then I became intent on finding the thing. It was a little underwhelming in person, though I know it wasn’t the original — in Florence, as in probably most cities filled with antiquities, the originals are often put away for safekeeping and protection from the elements in museums, and copies (often still old) are the ones remaining in their place (like the fake David in the Piazza della Signoria, where the original David once stood).

So after finding Bacchus, I walked around the gardens for a while, sat down in the shade to read, and promptly fell asleep for a few hours. A very relaxing/lazy Saturday afternoon. Last night I ended up back at Trattoria Nella, as did the California couple. It turns out they closed the place on Thursday and there was quite the drunken debauched time that I’m glad I missed. They were all laughing about it, the french horn player was strumming a broken guitar he keeps up above the bar, while all swilling grappa and Campari in abundance. Definitely glad I missed that. But they were well on their way to repeating the performance last night. I kept waiting to just get my bill, passed on the grappa and the Limoncella and instead the french horn-playing owner kept filling my glass with more chianti. So my “meal” ended up taking about three hours until I finally got the bill and left.

It’s really quite a gift to be able to not have to be somewhere, and to be able to just be in the moment and not worry about what to do in a few hours, or days. Which is not to say I don’t think about it — especially since my plans have evolved quite a bit from my original intent, I need to figure out where I can go and do it on the relative cheap. Not like I can hang out in Florence in a 150 Euro a night hotel. So I have been pondering my next move, which could be to a farmhouse we love in Tuscany, but might be to the Amalfi coast, if I can get a room at the hostel down there (otherwise too expensive). Scott comes in in a week, at which point we will probably hike the Via Francigena for a few days or perhaps we’ll make the trek to the Amalfi Coast to Positano (so beautiful there), and end up in Rome for a few days.

Today I think I’ll go to the Galileo Museum, which I hear is interesting and not overrun with tourists. A nice cool retreat in from the heat. The weather has been spectacular but hot, and I saw large storm clouds rolling in yesterday afternoon, and today is overcast, so I expect rain might be on the horizon. All the more reason to find a museum. Tomorrow most of them are closed, unfortunately, so if open I will probably go to the interior courtyard at the Palazzo Strozzi, an art museum. The courtyard looked like a nice place to beat the heat and write for a while.

once again i’ve tried to add pictures but the app is crashing, so none to add right now! sorry!

La Dolce Vita

howdy!
****I FIXED SOME ERRORS FROM LAST NIGHTS POST–the WordPress app crashed so glitched things…here goes again!

Sorry a few days passed, just no chance to catch up here. Will try to do it justice now.

So enjoyed my day in Lucca and went off to the Cinque Terre for a day, by train yet again. You’d think by now I’d have gotten the groove of ticketing, etc here. Ha!

I’m an uptight traveler — I get totally anxious having to figure out unfamiliar modes of transportation & I’m sure I come across as a complete half-wit to the locals as I frantically try to make connections. Trenitalia does a good job of enhancing my neuroses by offering incomplete directions, inoperable signage, and providing little in the form of human interaction if one needs to figure out why the ticket says to lucca but nowhere is there a train to lucca on any sign board. Obviously I need to know the end destination, but there are so many small tracts of rail connection so many areas here that it takes a while to figure out if I’m boarding a train at La Spezia and need to stop at Lucca, on *that* line then my train is for Firenze. Of course there are other nearby lines also stopping in Lucca, local trains, but that’s a whole nother story. So basically when the ticket fails to provide basic information like train numbers, well, I sorta freak out with 30 seconds to make my connection, having no clue what track I need to race to. I am hoping I will better acclimate but instead I seem to plod along, just maniacally seeking my next train, not wanting to be stuck in a small, unfamiliar town at 10 pm knowing not what to do. I told you, I’d make a lousy vagrant.

To a certain degree this can get to me while walking, too, with many legs of the journey now 30+ km/day, which I know with my massive pack us too much distance to successfully cover. I have no clue if there will be a town at which I can stop midway, which also arouses that damned anxiety. I know before I left I told myself if I got stuck having to sleep outside somewhere I could deal with it but in truth, I have NO desire to do that, especially in unfamiliar territory.

And I am for certain a transportation weenie…I’m sure my girls remember the time several years ago when we arrived in Paris in advance of Scott & kyle, who’d remained in Germany for another World Cup match. We were staying in some stratospherically-removed exurb of the city (it said it was in Paris but was about as much Paris as Gainesville is Washington, DC, and I was tasked with getting me & my two fairly young girls into the city central. I was paralyzed with inadequacy, and if I recall correctly my 9-year old figured out the damned trains while I stammered and fought panic during rush hour. Sadly, I could no sooner interpret the Parisian subway system then I could have read a dissertation in Slovakian. I choose to attribute this to my discalculia (I swear I have this, it’s sort of the dyslexia of math, and I assume by extension it includes failure to figure out maps etc. I’m sticking with that story…).

At any rate, as I tried to get my tickets for the Cinque Terre at the stazione, I had maybe 15 minutes but the queue for the ticket person was 15 deep. The self-service machines were broken (all but one) and I kept vacillating between the line and the remaining ticket machine. I saw a Dutch woman with whom I’d eaten the night before — I was trying to get a table outside at a restaurant but they were full and she offered for me to join her. Really sweet woman, so interesting, travels everywhere by herself, about 28 yrs old, and very venturesome. So I watched her do her ticket on the machine, however she was doing the most expensive route to the Cinque Terre. I knew because I’d researched online the night before that I could get to the CT for about 8 euro, but that it could cost as much as 50+ euro if I took other trains. So I wanted to be sure I didn’t do that. I decided to get on the machine after her, and naturally you click for it to be in English but all of the warnings that pop up as you try to get your ticket are in Italian. So every train I try to include in my route is rejected with a confusing explanation in Italian. Meanwhile I have a posse of pissed off commuters and tourists piling up behind me, wanting to get their tickets in time, and I am trying to save myself 40+ euro by doing it myself. Argh. Finally I played idiot tourist and went to the front of the line I had been in for a while for the ticket person and begged to have someone let me in, at which point I was able to get my ticket for the price I’d hoped for. With probably 15 people wanting to kill me.

Meanwhile Danielle, the Dutch girl, was on some of my trains and I was sorely tempted to just get the transfer with her onto the luxurious train rather than the non air-conditioned local, but I didn’t want to get busted and fined fine is steep). Stupid of me, as I learned eventually that there is a network of illegal immigrants here in Italy now who travel with a stockpile of crap they sell on the beaches of the Mediterranean — carvings from Africa, useless nonsense from SE Asia, that, weirdly , apparently, Italians will buy on the beach (I asked a local woman and she shrugged — I couldn’t imagine why a tourist would go to Italy to buy a carved wooden african man on a motorcycle or giant wooden carved hand — but she said the Italians scoop it up b/c it’s cheap). So anyhow, these illegals ride the trains for free, basically staying one step ahead of the ticket man on the train, they are constantly on the watch and on the move as he enters a car, they move to another one. As he goes down the aisle, they take the steps to the 2nd floor if there is one. It’s fascinating to watch. Of course the woman complaining to me about this also warned me how unsafe I was in Italy alone…Sigh…She was definitely a doomsdayer.

I enjoyed the Cinque Terre but it was rushed. Plus parts of it felt frightening overrun with tourists, which puts me off even though I am one. After not being around many people, it’s overwhelming to be around loud Americans (even though I can be one too) being embarrassingly loud Americans…And all of the shops selling so much junk. Too much. By the time I found one of the villages that was more laid back, it was time to depart. But I put my feet in the Mediterranean for a minute, and I got to take ferries from village to village, enjoying the exquisite weather. Kendall told me of the perfect dessert place to go to away from the crowds in one of the towns, so I made a point of going there and it was a great choice, had a fabulous mid-day meal of panna cotte and fresh fruit. Awesome…And he insisted I try his iced coffee which was scary good — a coffee milkshake basically, made with fresh cream. SO good. As I was racing (quite literally) to catch my train, out of breath, with about 12 seconds before the train was to depart, I’d sort of regretted not staying the night up there, but only so many things you can squeeze in. It’s a very beautiful place and would be gorgeous to hike (because the hiking is ALL views, unlike the VF). I was cockily glad my trains had all been on time when my last train was late. It was hard to hear the announcement (and to understand it) b/c all of the Italians were talking above it, so that’s when I asked the Italian woman nearby what was going on. She was the complainer — perfectly nice but just ragging on everything. So that last train was delayed a while, so we sat by the track inhaling 2nd-hand smoke (still so many smokers in Europe! I thought that had gotten better! Now it seems many roll their own).

One thing that is sort of ironic is how hard it is to plan to do the hiking without internet. My hotel in Lucca had lame internet that worked impulsively. It’s hard to go online and figure out where to stay the next night and to book it. So that was making me nuts. That said, the night manager was very kind and offered to drive me one town over to pick up the VF again — I didn’t want to start at Lucca because apparently that leg was mostly on roads, leaving city areas tend to be industrial and busy roads. So I thought leaving from Altopascio would be better, and my buddy said he’d drop me there on his way home in the morning. I decided because these legs of the walk were substantially longer, I’d need to unload some of my stuff I’d brought for the colder weather in Switzerland, so I ambitiously stopped at the post office. Ha!

Don’t ever be fooled by the cool, contemporary look of Postitaliane: they are a model of bureaucratic inefficiency. You take a ticket, and depending on the service you desire, you wait in line and wait til your number comes up. Much like DMV, and we all know how that works. So while I was one back in line, 30 minutes later and probably 10 people called before me later, I finally drummed up the courage to question this to one of the women at the desk. I think she realized what a messed up system it is, so finally she shrugged and decided to help me, rolling her eyes frequently (I’m pretty sure not even at me). The only other line that was designated for packages had a woman who I presume was having a lifetime of documents somehow processed, as it took an eternity as I waited for her.

The paperwork was staggering. She was displeased that I put the “sender” address as my previous hotel — normally I’d have put myself and my home address, but I wrongfully assumed that would be wrong. So she then had to remove that stick and replace it, which took another 10 minutes. No scratching anything out! I had to sign in I think quintuplicate. My post office lady clearly enjoyed power-stamping each document with her fist-sized stamp.

So then I was finally on my way, some 45 essential minutes later (essential because the later start meant the heat of the day was on me already).

As I stopped at the library to ask how to get to the VF, there were two young French women asking directions to the VF. They were wisely sharing backpack duties — one carried a heavy one, the other one a daypack. I didn’t even bother to ask to join them, as I knew they’d be there before I was even halfway there.

Leaving Altopascio was precisely what I expected leaving Lucca would be: just ugly, industrial, dreary. I assumed it wouldn’t last long. Meanwhile, I was at a busy traffic circle not 15 minutes into my walk when I rolled ankle on some crumbled pavement and nearly face-planted as the weight of my backpack threw me my forward. It really terrified me as had there been a car there at that very minute I’d likely have been hit by it. Sheesh. Not confidence-instilling. And I must have looked like a sight, hurtling toward the ground with cars zooming by everywhere.
So, the walk was I think about 24 km long. I’m going to mix my km and miles because my pedometer is set to miles so it’s how I quantify my distance. Easily the first 5 miles of the walk was on stinking hot miserable pavement with cars flying by. Even though it became less populated, it was just ugly. Broken glass strewed the roadside, litter, etc. It was entirely unpleasant. For those who live in Charlottesville, it was akin to walking along Route 250 from Boars Head in Ivy to Keswick. Just mile upon mile of nothing great to look at and cars and exhaust and trucks and no shoulder on the road and HEAT. Suffice it to say I was getting bitchy. Thank goodness there was no one with whom to get bitchy with. But yeah, the f-bomb was being muttered sporadically by my evil bitchy alter ego.

Meanwhile the directions were frustrating, trying to discern when we’d get off of that road. There was some turn onto an “unmade” road — define, please! — and FINALLY I see what appears to be a damned unmade road, complete with a sign for the Via Francigena! Hurray! So I take it. This is ostensibly on the original VF, from 1000 years ago, an old Roman road. So what do I know of old Roman roads? I followed the sign. So I’m walking and walking and walking. It’s definitely not a road, it seems pretty unmade to me. And then all of a sudden, it just stops. Not only that, but there is a vague VF sign pointing kind of the way I came but almost off to another direction.
So I’m wondering where the hell I am to go. So I follow the way it could be going, which seems counterintuitive, directionally. But who knew? Maybe it took a path way into the woods? But as I walked and the paths became more and more small and diverging in different directions, I had NO idea what I was to do. I was already a good 40 minutes into this route when I finally took some path headed toward a farm (a not very scenic one with mean barking dogs) and finally found a little old woman with few teeth and less English in her repertoire, who conveyed to me I should’ve just stayed on the road. Stupido me!

Alas, when I was up north I had this fabulous app called Pocket Earth, on which we thought we’d loaded the entire VF (thanks to Scott for that as I was failing miserably in that attempt). But for some reason it didn’t load some parts of it, so while I was up north I could track immediately if I’d gone off-piste, now I’m on my own. Technology does exist to help those like me not get lost, but the other part of that was the GPS tracking that we had access to turned out to be not for Macs, so by the time we finally got the right waypoints to download, it wasn’t working and I had to get to the airport, so that was that! I do have a guidebook but it has some terminology with which I’m simply not familiary (“turn off on white road” — um, WTH is a white road? It is DEFINITELY not white, by the way). So it can throw me off. Plus I truly suck at reading maps and directions.

As I navigated the ugly road, I realized the fragrant Swiss cow dung aroma had given way to the stench of Italian dog shit, which was everywhere. Trekking along the lovely glass-strewn road. Yeah i was not digging that LOL. Still not seeing animals but seeing more dead birds. I think now they’re too slow to escape the path of oncoming fast drivers. I was definitely not feeling the love for that walk.

After my wrong turn, my meltdown ensued, so it would take an act of god to rectify my attitude. I truly wanted to make limoncella out of lemonade (sorry, stupid pun while in Italy). I finally found the ancient roman road, which sounded far more charming than it was. it paralleled an easy-to-walk white gravel road, but that was marked with a big slash sign, do not use. So on the cobblestones I walked, but they were very hard to navigate without wrenching an ankle, so it was slow-going. It still wasn’t scenic, but at least off-road. For the next many miles it simply alternated between roads to off-road but not pretty — more like fire roads, and washed-out stream beds, or where you’d take your four-wheeler if you wanted to go get muddy and trash the place. Absolutely no view, nothing. Mostly no shade, so blazing hot (my thermometer on my compass said 95 degrees but it could be broken at that temperature as there is somehow a crack in it). The flora that was roadside was just nothing beautiful — mostly scrubby, weedy. I’m sure my naturalist friends would find a host of wonderful finds there, but to me it all looked like weeds.

After a few hours, voila, I encountered the French girls, who still had no interest in talking to me (in the morning the same). They’d discovered wild blackberries along the side of a very busy road and were picking away. I think they resented I did so as well — they wouldn’t talk to me even when I addressed them in french! They then just started walking again. As I picked berries all happy for the berries till I looked to my left and there, nestled in the brambles, a dirty diaper. Ahhhh, wilderness.

I did laugh at myself thinking about those French girls: they just looked like they were “la la la la la” out for a stroll, hadn’t broken a sweat, and I was in slog mode, with that song, what’s it from, with the laborers chanting “Oh, eee, oh, oh eee oh.” Lugging all that stuff and schvitzing my arse off and feeling immensely cranky, that was indeed my theme song…I was almost hoping a wild boar would jump out of the woods & put me out of my misery (boar eats me versus the other way around, as I’ve been yearning for a Tuscan specialty, pappardelle a la cianghale, a wild boar dish). Meanwhile I fear there are permanent divots in shoulders from hauling my pack at this point. I’m stooped, I swear it! Stooped over like Strega Nona from that Tommy DiPaoli children’s book LOL (she was a creepy old witch with a wart on her nose).

Sometimes the path goes through a town or village. Some towns are cheerful, vibrant, welcoming, while others seem deeply downtrodden (as if I’d chosen to walk through Scranton, Pennsylvania).

I finally reached a point after 10 miles that I’d hit my limit. I still had like 6-7 miles to go at least, not including a huge climb to the top of the hilltop town of San Miniato once I got that, which at that point would’ve been in 2014. So I made the executive decision to find a taxi at the next town. Doesn’t it figure, as I’m approaching the next town it finally looks pretty, there are hints of scenery and vistas etc. I cross a busy road, see I have a huge climb uphill, so then look to my right and see this industrial park that has a contemporary pizzeria at the front of it. I decide to wend my way the 100 yards or so over there, and see on the other side of the building a group of tourists with bright green shirts on and I’d hoped to go beg a ride off of them, but they disappeared before I got there. So I try to enter the pizzeria but it’s closed. Sigh…So I have to climb this steep hill, intent on calling a cab in the next village (which at least was a sweet little village, not one of the grim ones). FINALLY I get an overpriced cab, and the drive alone was 25 minutes, so thank you Jesus I didn’t walk it (it would have taken HOURS), and he takes me to my overpriced hotel (I was unable to reach anyone by phone at the convent after trying for two days), but wow, that hotel was a drink of water in the dessert. Meanwhile, who do I encounter but the greenshirted folks, who turned out to be a group of Brazilian women who’d walked the Camino in Spain and now were walking Lucca to Rome. They, too, lamented the route was miserable, and far too long (apparently different with the Camino), and they’d been trying to get a cab at the pizzeria as well! They ended up going into some industrial place and calling from some office. Now they have the smart plan — they have a travel company transporting their bags from place to place, so they are just walking. I could totally do 30 km a day without lugging 16 pounds of stuff on my back. Plus their travel company has them booked into really nice hotels each night, also not a bad thing when you’re hot, sweaty, and needing comfort.

San Miniano is a delightful hilltop village, just beautiful, palazzos everywhere, very majestic with amazing views. I unfortunately wasted too much time there trying to plan logistics for the next several days, which I had to do with internet (calling to reserve overnight stays, places I was seeking on the internet, so I’m sort of a slave to when I can find WiFi. What did they do 1000 years ago without it?! LOL).

Last night I went to a small restaurant down the hill and was tacked onto a table with a middle aged couple on date. E-harmonia, perhaps? (sorry, trying for bad Italian word play). They were yakking away, laughing at each others jokes, heavy flirtation occurring right under my nose. He (his name is Giovanni) was multo expressivo, with very gravelly voice that got very high when giggly. She was totally Italiana hot, though her eyes might have used a little tuck ;-). As if I can talk… They were leaning into each other big time, their hand gestures very receptive. Ahhh, amore, the international language. I love being a snoop, in any language.

I’m in tartuffo (truffle) country, and the smell assaults your nostrils the minute you step into a restaurant (I’m dining at Osteria L’Upapa–love that word, I think maybe it means woodpecker?). So it took getting used to that aroma as I’m not a truffle fan. To think thus town hosts a weeks-long white truffle festival — blech! Ah, but I got my cinghiale al pappardelle, was multo buono.

So after my yesterday fiasco I decided to reevaulate my mission here. So much of the VF seems to be on roads, and I’m not loving that from a safety perspective and also from a hot pavement ratcheting the temperature up another ten degrees perspective. I’d hoped for a lot of beautiful views like in Switzerland but much of the walking offers nothing of the sort, at least yet. I know I run the risk of missing some beautiful legs of the walk right now, but I decided instead to divert, getting over to San Gimignano and then to Siena, and then spend a few days in Florence.
Alas, what I didn’t realize is that once I got myself this far into Tuscany, mass transit is non-existent. Which means my ONLY way out was by taxi. Argh. So I took a very very expensive taxi to San Gimignano, which was a very good decision.

Along the road I could see that a lot of the VF continued on roads, attesting to my decision being right for me, as I just wasn’t loving that part of it. I was amused to see a sign before some town boasting their Festival di cacciatore (bunny stew festival) — sorry Kendall! The bunny in the sign looked so happy! He clearly didn’t know his fate…

My taxi driver’s ringtone was Tom Jones singing “Its Not Unusual”, which is sorta retro, I kept hearing it each time he got a call.

When I arrived in San Gimignano, I was at first dismayed by the onslaught of tourists, galore. But once I started wandering and going up side streets, I had a great day. This is a lovely town, very beautiful, and if you look you can find this awesome park that takes you to the top of the walled village and it’s a fabulous view of Chianti, the region I’m now. So I’m totally happy with my choice. I just have zero interest in dodging speeding cars in busy roads for eight hours a day. So after a few days in Florence to recharge my battery, I’ll aim to try to rejoin the the VF somewhere here in Tuscany. And I’m so happy that Scott’s going to meet me for the last week, and we’ll walk a few days on it and then go to Rome. So while I’m not adhering to my original plan per se, I’m totally comfortable with this choice. Perhaps since I’m a writer, I realize that when the story’s not going in the direction you’d hoped, sometimes you have to change the narrative. I have enjoyed many parts of the walk so far, and hope to enjoy many more over the next few weeks, but have to be realistic about my goals and about how best to achieve them. I realize there is no way I’ll make 30 km/day, which means it would be double the time I’d have to take on the VF, with no mid-way stopping points. And my 3 liters of water runs out at about 8 miles. So I’m just making this up as I go along. In florence I hope to just tuck into quiet places and find time to write, also revisit some places I love there as well. I’ll be staying at a hostel so that should be interesting. It promises to be a quiet hostel and not aimed at 18-year olds (please!), so hopefully it’ll be ok. But me and 3 strangers in co-ed room. Honestly. How old am I? ;-)

I found this tiny restaurant when I first got into town — totally off the beaten path, which often bodes well. The woman at my b&b then suggested it when I asked for a good local place. It’s as big as a sneeze, rather cozy, but smells divine, plus more like local prices, so looking forward to it!

On tonights menu (but not for me): ox tongue. That’s on a lot of menus. I must clearly be missing out, but choose to remain in that state…I loved the owner of tonight’s restaurant, had that classically Italian way of speaking English: Today’s-ah-specials-ah-beef-grillata-ah-with-ah-vegetables-ah-no tomate-ah.

After dinner I walked back up to the piazza — San Gimignano has gorgeous architecture, with fortress-like palazzos at every turn and beautiful and imposing towering arches and crenallated walls–you feel as if you are protected within the castle walls. Just missing a moat!

I hung out on the steps reading while a very annoying flautist played music, accompanied by a karaoke version of We Are the Champions. Someone should arrest him for disturbing the peace. He’s definitely reached point of diminishing returns, audience-wise, and should call it a night & spare those of ya seeking quietude on the piazza. Ha! My bad. People actually clapped when he finished. Go figure. He reminds me of when those people pull out the Peruvian pan pipes in public venues to try to draw some cash.

Allora, I am off to bed. Had a lovely day in San Gimignano and go by bus (not foot as it would be 3 long days at great distance) to Siena before heading to Florence for the weekend. Will try to pick up the VF next week again…Ciao ciao!

***update: spent nice day in Siena but when I realized my hotel room smelled like urine I decided to hop thesis to Florence this evening so here I am in another great city! Staying at a hostel (I’m no doubt the granny of the group) but its actually quite nice. Though sharing room with six others…tomorrow through mondsy coed even. Should be interesting…

chianti region at sunset

On the Move

Ciao belli!

A few days have passed since I last blogged. I’ve been molto busy, some of it just trying to get places, be it by foot or by train.

When I last posted, I was in Aosta, I believe. Aosta was a cute-ish town, nestled in a valley at the base of the Italian Alps. It’s an Old Roman city with Roman arches intact surrounding parts of the town. Staying power, those Romans had. By the time I got to a hotel and got to dinner that night, many people were out and about for their passegiata — an evening stroll for window shopping and chatting. So I saw lots of people milling about. It’s a lovely Italian tradition, and great people-watching.

The next morning I was off to the stazione for a day-long journey to get to Fidenza, where I planned to pick up the Via Francigena again. I learned yesterday I’ve been grossly mispronouncing this word. Of course depending on what country you’re in it’s said differently anyhow. But now it’s pronounced Frahn-SHAY-jayna. I still struggle to get that right!

Anyhow, I spent the day swapping trains (four in all), and got to see the terrain I was intentionally bypassing, and was glad I chose to — very flat, very boring, mile upon mile of mostly rice paddies, interspersed with corn fields. I finally arrived in Fidenza, located not far from Parma, in early evening. I can’t say I was bowled over with the place. Just sort of overall “meh” impression. Buildings seemed a combination of rundown old and just ugly 1960s architecture. There is probably a good reason that every Italian gave me a resigned shrug when I said I wanted to get to Fidenza. Without fail, they’d all say “Firenze?” (meaning Florence), to which of course I really want to go, but not that day, and then they’d look at me like I was nuts to opt for Fidenza instead. Clearly they were onto something.

The accommodations for the night were at Albergo Ugolini, above a pizza restaurant. Think upscale prison. Actually, mercifully Italians are super super clean, so even a dismal hotel room is impeccably spotless, which does my heart good. Though to see some of the riffraff who showed up later in search of a room, it gave me pause to think what I was resting my head on that some of these dudes also might have shared. My standards have diminished substantially — amazing when you’re tired enough what looks downright cozy. Ish. The pillow did have a bit of a sour smell, though honestly I think it was a vinegar-based cleaner as the towels smelled the same the next day. Though all were starched and as white as snow. My hosts were lovely and friendly, so that helped me feel right at home in the relatively grim environs. My room was what you’d expect a “hotel ” room to look like if you raided your basement or scoured yard sales in the barrio to decorate an attic space above your pizza restaurant. Sparse & weathered. And the locale, well, naturally with the incumbent noise you’d expect on Friday night after a bunch of hairy guido-types watched football in the bar below. Shouting outside til wee hours.

I asked around for the piazza where the church was where I needed to get my “credenziale” stamped (each town you walk to/from you get a stamp in a sort of passport to show you’ve done the walk, this enables you to get official dispensation at St. Peter’s in Rome). Oddly NO ONE in this town knew where the piazza was (though it wasn’t far from the central piazza. Go figure.

It was friday night so I went into the centrale, the main part of town, the piazza, and a band was set up to play, so I was going to sit down at an outdoor bar and have a drink and enjoy the evening, but once the band started to play (they seemed to be in a perpetual state of warming up, I’d noticed, as I wandered around), they were painfully loud, playing headbanger music. Perfect for a Friday sunset…

I’d asked a group of folks earlier at a wine bar near my hotel for a restaurant recommendation, and they gave me a place actually quite near the church I needed to find (but I didn’t realize it till the next day!), and I scouted it out and it was totally empty. So I decided not to go there at first, returning to the piazza with the too-loud music and tons of cigarette smokers. It was enough to drive me back to the empty restaurant, thank goodness. I knew it was still early enough that only outsiders like me would feign to show up for dinner (was about 8 pm), but the chef was so enthusiastic when I got there, I knew it would be good, and he didn’t fail. I felt peer-pressured into his warm capon salad for an appetizer. My mom used to make capons when I was young but I hadn’t seen one in 35 years. It was fabulous, braised on top of mixed greens with balsamic vinegar (the good kind) and sultanas. Yummm. Followed by amazing homemade gnocchi (sorry Kendall!) and another delicious semifreddo, this time with some nougat thing going on. Italians sure do know how to cook (as long as you avoid the touristy places).

After dinner I wandered amidst the weak passegiatta (much less interesting than in Aosta), interested that many people were on bicycle. Definitely a biking town at least. I then headed back to the Ritz, where there were shouting matches going on outside beneath my window, perhaps from the pool hall across the street, till probably 2 a.m. Reminded me of long ago when Scott and I attended a wedding in San Francisco and the affianced couple had found for all of the guests a newly renovated yet affordable hotel, outside of which was a hangout for hookers all night long. While our room was clean enough, albeit spartan, we listened to prostitutes and pimps hollering at each other all night long. Ahhhh, memories.

So Saturday I loaded up my stuff (which takes SO long, considering I have that one backpack). It’s a daily struggle to put the pieces of the puzzle back together with that thing — my own little Humpty Dumpty.

It took me I swear an hour to find that darned church that should have been obvious to anyone who’d lived in Fidenza for more than a day, and then follow the route out of town. On the edge of town was a Saturday market, so I stopped for fresh fruit, which turned out to be the high point of the day…I figure I waste an hour a day packing up my backpack and an hour a day getting lost. Weird how boiling things down to simplicity make things more complicated sometimes. At least in my car I’d have that nice woman on my GPS telling me where to go. And at least at home I can just leave things in one place and not lug them again and again. I’d not make a good vagrant, of this I can be sure. I keep thinking my load will lighten, but it seems 1/8 ounce of shampoo and conditioner I use a day doesn’t cut into that much. I’ve been coveting my slight stockpile of power bars and chocolate, knowing there will be legs of the walk in which there is no food/drink for 28 km, but damn, yesterday, the chocolate all melted in my pack! It was that hot! I wonder if there’s some metaphor for life in lugging so much stuff: you weigh yourself down with so much unnecessary crap (not just physical but mental: worries, fears, anger, etc). Much easier to keep it light and easy…

I am a huge Asker of Directions. Makes most people nuts, but reassures me. Of course that means you get too many answers, one of which almost sent me on the wrong path. God forbid I trust my overlapping and confusing and sometimes failing maps (or my gut, for that matter). When you make the wrong turn while walking, you pay for it with backtracking, which honestly sucks when you’re hot and running out of water and there’s nowhere to get more. And then you realize you have to walk two more miles.
The path was well-enough marked, but I stupidly didn’t realize I’d misplaced a page of my directions, so they made no sense after the first two miles, and I was baffled as to where the hell I was going for a while until I figured that out. That was totally my bad. I was climbing through the foothills of the Italian Appenines, and had expected gorgeous panoramas, but while parts of it were certainly pretty, it wasn’t anything that took my breath away by any stretch of the imagination. Much of the route was on pavement, and while technically country roads, still each car that passed did so at terrifying rates of speed and without obvious consideration for 50-year old women lugging too much shit in a backpack. There was no shoulder whatsoever, so no room for error. It was about 95 degrees on the pavement, which didn’t help matters. My one bright moment was walking down a hill and encountering a woman with a cute puppy she’d taken out to her back patio to pee. The sign on her fence showed a menacing German Shepherd and warned to beware of the ferocious dog, however her dog was all of 8 pounds of puppy and was happy to nibble at my fingers through the fence. I think the woman thought I was truly pazzo for loving on her dog like I did. Oh, my other high point yesterday was I walked by a massive field filled with San Marzano-type tomatoes and I lifted one from the vine. It was delicious: meaty and flavorful. Way better than when they end up in a can at the grocery store.
Sometimes as I’m walking I realize I am as slow as an old granny (make that great granny) with a walker. But I’m so paranoid about not losing my footing, I try to be ultra careful. But it makes for slower going, which means there are places I have to pick and choose where to curtail on this walk. But all good, as I knew there would be a lot of unknowns along the way.

Fortunately I knew that Tuscany was far prettier, so when I arrived in Costamezzana, I made a quickie executive decision. The town was dead, the hostel at which I was to stay wasn’t to open till 6 pm, which meant that I had to kill about four hours with no where in which to kill it. Instead I tucked into a bar, asked if there was a way to get a taxi to a train station, and a lovely waitress offered to drive me back (!) to Fidenza, which seemed counterintuitive, but was so smart for me to do. I was able to hop on yet more trains (this after walking for 8 hours all day) and with a number of potential glitches with train changes, managed to land in Lucca late last night. Thank goodness!

The trains I rode went through the areas I would have been walking for some 7-8 days, and honestly after having walked through the Alps, it paled by comparison. Sort of reminded me of the mountains in Pennsylvania, which never once motivated me to trek them for a week while growing up, with good reason. Even as we coursed through the mountains, the bodies of water were still, no rushing torrents cascading to the bottom. Only lazy streams. More tall hills than stark mountains. In Pontremoli, a sleepy town in which I didn’t want to sleep, I raced to change trains only to find out there was no train to change to (despite the directions of the ticket man in Fidenza). At least I wasn’t the only one running stupidly — several others did as well, and they were locals. Almost got stuck there, which would have bummed me out. I had to laugh because at that stop, it seems that everyone on the sparsely-populated train deboarded for a smoke, including the conductors. My next confusing stop was at a station in a suburb of Pisa. Completely empty, dark settling in, and no train to Lucca on the schedule. With a minute to spare I ran across two sets of tracks (I know, bad idea) and boarded the small local train which, thank goodness, also went to Lucca. I was hollering to the conductor “aiuto!” (Help!”) and he kindly reassured me I could still get to Lucca.

Upon my arrival,ca delightful Italian woman who lives in Pisa but spends her weekends with her boyfriend in Lucca helped me to find my impossible to find hotel, for which I was immensely grateful. Lucca is an exquisite historical walled city, just large enough to be interesting but small enough to navigate readily. Had a so-so late meal at a tourist trap near my hotel.After spending the morning figuring out my new agenda, with the help of Paolo, the awesome owner of the hotel, I wandered into the Piazza MIchele, found my way to bike rentals (they’re plentiful) and rode a bike around the city all day. You can ride up on the wall (I’m assuming yet another Roman one though haven’t read about that yet) and really get a chance to see it from on high. I even met a fellow pelligrina — someone making the pilgrimage — a young Irishwoman named Mary who was beginning her walk tomorrow from Lucca.

On my bike I stumbled upon an American woman who lives in Lucca and got a recommendation for what she said was the best restaurant in Lucca, named Osteria Leo. she told me to tell them Lulu sent me. Lulu from Lucca to Leo…It was wonderful and non-touristy, which was perfect. I can’t help but people watch as I’m all alone and I was transfixed by this slack-breasted, aged Luccese (sp?) woman with but one tooth jutting from her lower jaw like volcanic rock in the middle of a dark ocean, busy holding court at a nearby table. She was very loud and evidently very opinionated. It was funny to watch her go on and on to a number of people at different tables. I was so surprised as she was getting up to go and the man with whom she’d apparently shared a table said “piacere conosco” which meant “pleased to know you” — evidently she’d just plunked herself down at his table and started yapping. Turns out he was from Barcelona and on a motorcycle tour of Tuscany, didn’t even know the woman. Also interesting to watch the pregnant woman at a nearby table smoking away…

Tomorrow I divert to the Cinque Terre for the day, then Tuesday resume walking, bypassing the first leg from Lucca as it’s on busy roads. I learned from Lulu that it is common for pedestrians and bikers to be hit and killed in Italy and usually no one ever even gets in trouble for it. She said there is callous disregard for those along roads who aren’t in cars, so that was warning enough for me to be wary. Plus after having walked most of 8 miles on hot pavement, I’m learning what to avoid. Still looking for those meadows perhaps?

As I sit outside of the main piazza writing this, a group of about 10 people has pulled up in a van, unloaded supplies, and set up shop with some sort of political protest. they are very intent, stringing up signs and preparing their musical selection for their presentation. So curious what they are protesting, it’s MoVimento beppegrillo.it . Must look that up. Frankly someone has been playing that Frito Bandito song on a harmonica for the past hour so this protest might be a refreshing change.

After being gone a week now, I know one thing that I already knew, but is only reaffirmed: I am a people person so it’s very foreign to me to be by myself. I’m frankly bored with me! I feel like a Labrador retriever let loose in a vast human-free forest. I may soon become a little too desperate to speak with people, despite a strong level of communication barriers thanks to my tepid Italian skills.

I have found it refreshing to not even consider “shopping” anywhere. No need to acquire needless tchotchkes and certainly nowhere to put them. As it is my pack is too full. (though, um, I am going to search the Piazza Barberini if I remember correctly in Rome for a little wine shop that sold good balsamic vinegar and olive oil, as by then I’ll happily lug it home!!). Rather I guess I am figuring out a new level of self-sufficiency at this late date, and simply experiencing the experience. And learning how to navigate public transportation when need be, in another language, which can be challenging. Part of my plan, learning how to get around fearlessly. Or should I say less fearfully?

Though I have a newfound empathy for turtles, lugging everything on their back. No wonder they lay eggs instead of carrying babies on top of all that!

I will say yesterday I had a few near-meltdowns. In my head I kept thinking: Dear Diary: The Amalfi coast is sounding sorely tempting right about now.” Though honestly I don’t know what I’d do there for 3 weeks! Plus the best part of the walk should be in Tuscany, so I just needed to ditch the part I wasn’t enjoying.

So far on my walks, once I’m out of a town, I see exactly no one, save for an occasional farmer. I can be contemplative but it can also get to be boring. I’ve listened to my Italian book on my iPod (trying to erase the rudimentary french that had resurfaced from the recesses of my memory while in Switzerland), and listened to hundreds of songs as well, as well as thousands of chirping crickets. Not so many birds, unfortunately. I’ve seen very few animals, and I’d expected to see far more. Instead I’ve seen dead bugs galore, dead butterflies, and a dead bird, unfortunately. And I’ve seen more grasshoppers and crickets than I need to know exist in the world. Yesterday plenty of fallow and tilled fields and many views blocked by walls, fences and tall trees erected by people who owned the nice villas outside of town.

We pause for this brief message: Please remember I’m attempting to raise money for the IRC with my walk. I’ve been remiss in promoting this much but I just got too busy as I was preparing to leave for my trip, just bit off more than I could chew. Link is .

Oh, by the way, les you think I’m brave or admirable for this quest, you should know this: I miss my rolling suitcase. I miss my down comforter and feather bed. I miss my reliable hot showers. And I miss my family desperately. I’m bored with me! I’m a people person with no people: I’m that lost Labrador, aimless in the woods. And I’m lugging too much crap!

I hear the UVA football game was delayed by thunderstorms yesterday — that seems so crazy! Never hear of such a thing!

I’m glad I’m in Tuscany, love it here, it’s so beautiful. And again tremendously grateful that my husband has enabled me to undertake this adventure! Grazie mille ;-)

Ciao for now!

I WAS TRYING TO UPLOAD PICTURES BUT THE INTERNET IS TOO SLOW SO I’LL JUST POST THIS AND TRY TO POST PICTURES LATER!