Three Days in Tuscany (2013)

Swiss Precision

Singapore-Zurich / 30 October 2013

The EUROGIN congress this year will be held in Florence (these obgyns do choose the prettiest venues for their annual get-togethers). With blessings from the boss, I tagged on a couple of days leave – and as the stars were aligned, Siân managed to rearrange her schedule to meet me in Florence before the conference – she was doing this without taking any leave, which was doubly impressive and further proof of star alignment.

The ride to Changi T2 this time was in Shobs’ limo. There was some discussion of scissors-paper-stone and/or arm wrestling between Shobs and Brian but they settled the question of which limo to use without resorting to either method. So this time I had the company of Shobs, Meerie and a sleeping Juno (who had by this time had enough of airports I think).

Another first – flying Swiss this time. All very quietly civilised. The food was surprisingly good (the picture of the tenderloin is for Brian), and they got extra points for being very generous with the wine (glass filled almost to brim).

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Caught two movies – The Heat which was laugh out loud vintage Sandra Bullock, and White House Down which had an Obama-esque Jamie Foxx as the President, and (according to me) just one twist and turn too many. Slept for about 7 hours which was nice.

With Swiss precision we touched down exactly on schedule at 6.10 in the morning in Zurich. It was about 2C outside but nice and cosy in the airport – and very quiet…does everyone here speak in hushed tones?

A two-hour transit before the flight to Florence.

Waiting in Florence

Zurich – Firenze / 30 October 2013

Swiss starts boarding even earlier than SQ. in Singapore I was at the gate 25 minutes before flight time and EVERYONE had boarded – I was the last one on. Today in Zurich, I didn’t realise how far away my gate was and arrived there 10 minutes before flight time. While I apologised, the Swiss ground staff very good naturedly said “I vill order a special bus for you.” Aiyo! Fortunately when I got to the plane (on the special bus), people (from the normal bus) were still boarding so it wasn’t as embarrassing as it would have been if I’d boarded when all the passengers were already buckled in and the pilot revving the engines! It’s been years since something like this has happened. In fact I think the last time this happened was in 1984 after Christmas in Abergavenny when we reached Heathrow with barely half an hour to spare. I was so late they waved me through despite my luggage being 80lbs (twice the allowed amount – a result of very successful book shopping in Bath), and I literally had to run to the plane.

Despite my tardiness, the flight left on the dot and landed (very smoothly) on the dot too. Flew over some spectacular mountains – I’m assuming it was the Swiss Alps, and after Breakfast #2 for the day, it was Swiss chocolate and Inspector Singh.


At Florence the bag was out quickly and there was no immigration to clear so no Firenze stamp in the passport. In the washroom as I tried to get the soap dispenser to dispense soap, a nice Italian girl said “It’s not working”, pointed out the one functioning dispenser, and added “This is Italy.” (!)Having bought a guide book and map (still need to get supplies for the road), it’s now ‘waiting time’…more than four hours before Siân gets in.

Burnt Siena & Herbal Liqueur

Pienza, Tuscany / 30 October 2013

Siân’s Swiss flight from Zurich did not display the same precision timing as my flights – it landed a whole minute early! Greetings done, we piled into a shuttle bus that took us to the car rental place. We found our car…not the VW Polo that was booked but a Citroen Picasso (which lived up to its name in that it looked a bit strange). There was some delay getting out of the car park as a huge lorry had been parked right in front of us. Siân was about to go in and change the rental start time when the truck driver appeared and we were finally off.

Apart from one minor wrong turn, our exceptional navigation skills stood us in good stead. It was highway for most of the way before turning off onto smaller winding roads and climbing (ear-poppingly) higher. We were in the province of Siena and it was obvious why ‘burnt Sienna” is called that. The buildings all had this lovely reddish glow, helped no doubt by the amazing light of a setting sun.

We found our hotel, the Residence San Gregorio, with no problem. The girl who showed us to our room was very apologetic about her minimal English skills, but more interesting was her raspy voice – which Siân surmised was a result of a 2 pack-a-day habit.

It was dark by about 5.30pm when we wandered out to the UNESCO-tagged ‘historic city centre’ which was quite charming with its narrow alleys, smells of cheeses and lack of touristy crowds. It also was quite cold.

 

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Pienza

After some to-ing and fro-ing, comparing the menus (and number of customers) of two restaurants, we decided on dinner at the Ristorante Dal Falco. It was a very yummy and rather excessive dinner. We both had pasta (I had pici, which reminded me of the fat noodles we used to get from the stalls behind the Convent in Seremban; Siân had a kway teow-ish flat pasta) with wild boar sauce which was very good. Siân was in the mood for steak and she had a rather large steak (by her standards, not by Brian’s and KF’s) while I had a (smaller) veal steak. The accompanying spinach with garlic and grilled vegetables were excellent too. We did well on the alcohol front too – a martini rosso to start, wine (Orsia i think) from the region and a herbal liqueur (which was free flow and on-the-house). It was a long dinner, with more and more exuberant and extravagant toasts as the night went on.

It was a very short walk back to the hotel and almost straight to bed at a decent time of 11pm. No jetlag!

An Italian Halloween

Montepulciano, Tuscany / 31 October 2013

After the culinary excesses of the previous night, it was (out of necessity) a late start today. When Siân reported her ‘status’ to her dad when he called this morning, he was not in the least sympathetic and said “Self-inflicted pain is always the worst.”

We did a slow walk through the walled town centre with its multitude of narrow alleys between stone buildings, and magnificent views of the Tuscan countryside at the end of most of these alleys.

Besides the cheese shops selling pecorino – sheep’s milk cheese, which Pienza is famous for, there were several artisan-type shops, which seem to be part of Italian life – book binding, silver smithing, fountain pen making. This morning, Siân lingered at the artisan places and the church but sped up considerably at the cheese shops to evade the rather pungent wafts of pecorino.

This afternoon, we drove 15km east to Montepulciano. Montepulciano is a renaissance hill town in the province of Siena in southern Tuscany. It sits quite dramatically almost 2,000 feet up on a limestone ridge. We had to park outside the walls…and walk. It was uphill all the way. How do people get their groceries?? How do they get anything if everything has to be lugged up those slopes?? Siân said if she lived there she would be getting groceries for one meal at a time. I had to agree.

Steep slopes notwithstanding, it was a beautiful little place. Like Pienza, not many tourists in sight,which is always nice.

We didn’t realise that Halloween is taken quite seriously in Italy. We saw several noisy trick-or-treaters running in and out of shops. And there were carved pumpkins at every turn. Here too there were artisans galore and we did a bit of shopping.

Exercise done for the day, we tried not to roll down the slope back to the car for the drive back to Pienza, once again through some spectacular countryside.

Dinner was at a little place back in the walled part of Pienza- the Trattoria da Fiorella. It looked to be a family-run place, with two brothers taking orders and serving, and their mum and sister toiling over the pici. It was another delicious meal – I had deep fried lamb chops, which was a first! The people at the next table were having bread with lard for starters…which made my deep fried lamb chops look just that bit more virtuous!

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The dizzyingly divine deep fried lamb chops – dizziness may have been a result of the arteries clogging up

Tomorrow, we go east – to we know not where.

 

Go East – the New Mantra (via Fano Fano Fano)

Trebbiantico, Marche / 1 November 2013

Over breakfast today, and for about an hour after that, Siân and I pored over our Tuscan map and TripAdvisor on the phone, trying to decide where to go next. There seemed to be no doubt that we’d be heading east. Gubbio in Umbria was one of our top choices…only because it *sounded* like a good place to stay …Gooo-bee-o. (Ok it was that kind of morning.) Tripadvisor, however, informed us that “there were no properties available” for the date we’d requested and to try other dates.

So we turned our attentions further east to Marche, aka ‘the poor man’s Tuscany’. After much searching, one hotel jumped out at both of us at the same time – the Hotel Cattani Stuart in Pesaro – AND there were rooms, so we booked it pronto, lugged our bags to the car and we were on the road again.

It was a lovely day; blue skies, fabulous vistas, narrow country roads. We decided we would stop at Cortona en route. Cortona is in the province of Artezzo, still within the Tuscan borders.

Legend has it that Noah entered the area where Cortona now stands via the Tiber and Paglia rivers. He (like us) loved it, and stayed for thirty years (unlike us). His son, Crano, went to the hilltop and fell in love with “the altitude, the beautiful countryside and clean air” – and so built Cortona on the hilltop.

Hilltop is not quite an accurate description – if the slopes of Montepulciano were steep, the slopes of Cortona were Very Very Steep. And yet, women sauntered effortlessly up and down the slopes in wedge heels, not even breathing hard (that was just us). We couldn’t begin to imagine how treacherous these slopes would be in the rain or snow.

We both loved Cortona, especially the little town square. It was a religious holiday today and local families were out in full force. And we didn’t see any obvious tourists…certainly no other Asians and no one else toting a camera.

After a delicious lunch (with Cortonese wine) sitting outdoors at the Cafe Teatro Signorelli, we wandered around the Piazza and dragged ourselves up to the Basilica Santa Margherita. On our way down we found a wine shop which had the Sangiovese we had had at lunch, and bought a couple of bottles – we wanted to see if the wine was independently delicious or if being in Cortona contributed significantly to its delicious-ness.

And so we set off to Pesaro. And what a drive that was. Despite following the signs and seemingly going in the right direction it took us an inordinately long time to get there. We drove up narrow mountain roads (shades of Bhutan – just slightly fewer potholes), we drove under mountains (through the longest tunnel I’ve been in); at one point as dusk fell, it seemed like the mountains were closing in on either side, in front of and behind us. It was most surreal, especially as these were rugged rock faces with no vegetation.
3.1383264000.light-at-the-end-of-a-very-long-tunnelWhen approaching Pesaro from the south, which we were doing, one has to get to a town called Fano first. So, follow the signs to Fano we did. We finally got on to an autostrade after all the hairy hairpins in the dark and followed the signs to Fano…and followed the signs to Fano…we drove and drove and the signs kept saying Fano was straight ahead (no distance indicated). After close to an hour of following the signs to Fano, it was with much relief that we saw a sign to Pesaro.

Once in Pesaro, the next challenge was to find the hotel without the benefit of a map. After a couple of rounds around the town, we sensibly stopped to ask…well, I got out and asked these two swarthy sweet-smelling men (I know, odd observation but they smelled of Ariel and herbs even from where I was standing), while Siân waited in the car, laughing at all the pointing and gesticulating (on the part of the men) and bemused nodding (on my part) that was going on. There was something about Via Flaminia and ‘spirali’ and hand signs that indicated we had some distance to go.

It was indeed some distance to go…and yes, we were on Via Flaminia, the ancient road that led from Rome over the Appenines (which we’d just crossed?), to Rimini. On the way, we passed a Via JFK – it was a sign, not sure of what though.

Finding the hotel was a bit like our experience in Poland, driving up and down the same road several times. We eventually found the hotel and fell into the lobby with much relief. The hotel was even better than we expected; we got a free upgrade which also helped.

After checking in, we got directions to the only restaurant in the village of Trebbiantico – the Ristorante La Vecchia Cantina – which was a 5-minute walk away. The concierge said it was “authentic” and “simple” which sounded perfect. And perfect it was – it was obviously a place where the locals hang out, given the familiarity with which some of them were greeted. Service was excellent; one of our waiters had just been to Malaysia for his annual holiday with his girlfriend! Food was fabulous, as was the complimentary licorice liqueur – another first.

Tomorrow – Florence, maybe via San Marino.

Crossing the Rubicon, and a Strange Republic

San Marino / 2 November 2013

After a very satisfying breakfast (in lieu of idli and mutton curry on Deepavali morning) and trying unsuccessfully to FaceTime with home, we took a walk around the grounds of the Cattani Stuart. I had thought that the vistas and views couldn’t get more beautiful than what we’d seen in Tuscany…but I obviously was wrong. The poor man’s Tuscany it may be, but Marche is hands down THE place to be. May it always remain off the beaten track and remain the poor man’s Tuscany – where a night at a 5* hotel (with breakfast) cost us all of €85 and a slap-up meal with drinks – €29 (!); and that out-of-this world view – priceless.

The Cattani Stuart was truly a gem of a find. The 17th century villa built by the Cattani family stands next to the slightly newer hotel building and is also available for guests (planning for future holidays there has already begun).

The blurb says the villa “reached the height of its splendour at the beginning of the 18th century when the Florentine Cardinal Alamanno Salviati, Papal Delegate to the province of Pesaro and Urbino between 1717 – 1732, used it as a country residence for himself and his guests.” One of the guests was Stuart James III, in 1726; he was at the time still recognised as King of England by the Roman Catholic Church. Thus the Cattani Stuart moniker.

How we wished we could have spent more time here but for the first time in 3 days we had a deadline to meet – we had to get to the Florence B&B by 8pm, after which there would be no one there to let us in. So, reluctantly, we had to get back on the road, deciding to stop at San Marino on the way.

The route took us past Rimini – where Siân’s parents met in the late 1950s (!), and then there was much excitement as we crossed the Rubicon…though I hoped that crossing the Rubicon this time didn’t mean we wouldn’t return!

San Marino is Strange! The parking attendants who were directing traffic to the available carparks (there were at least ten huge multistorey carparks) were all in uniforms that made them look like army generals. After we parked on Level 5 of carpark 9 (carparks 1-8 were full), we had to take a lift up to Level 9, then walk up a flight of stairs to the town centre.

It was chock-a-block full of tourists, mainly Russian and East European; at many of the narrower streets it was jostling room only and for the first time on this trip we both felt compelled to clutch our bags in front of us.

The shops catered solely to tourists, with signs in Cyrillic in every shop window. We had earlier thought we could have lunch at San Marino but quickly changed our minds (Fred’s Burgers anyone?!). I did get Siân a tacky fridge magnet though, in keeping with the atmosphere. Sorry San Marino, we won’t be coming back.

We were in hysterics by the time we got back to the car. It was a relief to be back on the road; in daylight, some of the rocky mountains looked like Toblerone bars.

We stopped at a little village mid-afternoon to get some food. The food shop was actually a dolci shop which had some amazing desserts – marzipan-y chocolatey walnutty…yum. Had some there and ta pao’d some for later.

It was a long drive again through the mountains with the radio stations cutting in and out and occasionally merging so we were listening to two songs at once. We were once or twice stuck behind some Very Slow drivers who braked at every (uphill) turn, which was cause for much interesting swearing.

Some hours of skilful driving later we were at the Residence dell’Orafo in Florence, well before our 8pm deadline.

On Sherman and Meerie’s recommendation we thought we’d try and find the Ristorante Casalinga, across the bridge near the Piazza Santo Spirito. We found it quite easily but as warned, there was a long queue and no tables available. The place next door too seemed to be full of locals so we assumed it would be good. There was a table available at Gusta Osteria – it was one of those rustic places where you’re pretty much elbow-to-elbow with the diners at the next table. It also meant that we could ogle at everyone else’s food, and inter-table conversations were started quite easily. The two chaps at the next table were from Turin (not local after all!) and one of them asked Siân if she would like some of his risotto after she commented on how delicious it looked! This apparently is not the first time this has happened – once someone actually gave her some of his food to taste.

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When in Florence, have Florentine steak

We shared a fabulous Florentine steak (when in Florence…) and spinach with garlic; we were served by a very helpful waiter who reminded me of Vinodh’s friend Richard.

Suitably stuffed, we fortunately had a long-ish walk back to the hotel. There was a short moment of panic when the key didn’t open the door to the corridor (to the room)…till we realised the door wasn’t locked…

Tomorrow – conference starts and Siân leaves.

 

 

Home Again, Home Again (jiggedy jig?)

Firenze, Italy / Wednesday 6 November 2013

Back in Aeroporto Angelo Vespucci Firenze for the flight home. A certain famous professor is sitting just behind me (no Sunil, not Halle Berry this time) speaking in Tamil with his wife (no, nothing scandalous to report).

It’s been an interesting few days at the conference – some of the issues are identical to ours in Singapore, some completely alien. There were speakers who befuddled with what seemed like font size 8 covering entire PowerPoint slides, while others (like the nearby professor) got their points across eloquently and elegantly with just the right amount of information on screen. There were sessions which overran spectacularly and sessions that just overran. All in all, a useful few days to quickly glean what’s new in the world of HPV.

Today we ended around lunch time so I decided to go for a walk around the city. With Meerie’s excellent directions, I found Giuliano Ricci’s silversmith workshop at the Piazza Santo Spirito. His wife, Maria, was thrilled to find out that Meerie and I are sisters – and asked me to give my sorrella (which I had previously thought was just the name of a lingerie brand) and her bambini with the nice long hair a kiss from her. As you can tell, my Italian has improved in leaps and bounds. Maria spoke no English – she went on at breakneck speed in Italian while I hoped to hear one or two words that I understood. Then Giuliano showed me his basement workshop and explained in great detail how he makes all the beautiful silver things which are exported to Dior and the like – and this too was entirely in Italian!

There were so many little shops that I would’ve loved to have popped into had there been more time. I did pop into one that had interesting little knick knacks – and got a Scrabble tea towel. The guy in the shop, Andreas, asked if it was my first day in Florence. I said it was my last day, and it’ll be back to work. To which he replied, “You’re lucky” – a reference to the mind-boggling 40% unemployment rate in Italy.

I guess I am – and not just because I have a job.

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