Day: 234 & 235
Towns / Cities Visited: 154
Countries Visited: 26
Steps Taken Today: 23,003
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,866,151
We awoke lazily to what would be the start of two days of small-town exploration on our journey from Tuscany down to Rome. As fun as seeing the famous tourist sites and major cities is, it’s important not to forget that the most authentic experiences are often found in the heartlands of the countries you visit. With that in mind, we bundled into our car, bid farewell to the beautiful surrounds of our Airbnb just outside Pisa, and began the hour-long trip to our first destination; the quaint hilltop town of San Gimignano.
Now, despite how the movies love to depict this part of the world, our morning was anything but spent under the warm glow of the Tuscan sun; instead, a good chunk of our drive was spent being pummelled by torrential rain. By the time we finally made it to the foot of the hill and parked though, the rain had eased, and left in its wake a lingering mist. Although it somewhat marred the view of the picture perfect town with its 13th century walls and famed collection of historic towers, we pulled our jackets tight around us, wound our way up past the grey-green olive trees speckling the incline, and ducked through the gate, into the safety of the towns heart.
As we wandered amongst the weathered fawn bricks and imperfect stones which me up the centuries old architecture here, the clouds insisted on releasing another light shower. It was comfortably lunch time by this point, and we decided to forgo sightseeing until the drizzle eased, and instead found ourselves somewhere to eat. By this point in the year, we were well within the realm of off-season, when the lesser visited locations like San Gimignano all wind down, and many of their eateries close for winter: a strange concept for us, in truth. Luckily, the place was not devoid of food options and we spotted a little trattoria in one of the narrow streets offering home-made pasta. With the weather being less than optimal, it was precisely what we wanted; nothing like a bowl of carbs to pick you up on a dreary afternoon. The interior was cosy and oozed traditional Italian charm, and the food matched it to a tee: humble, warm, comforting, and rustically beautiful. The tagliatelle with pigeon ragù was rich and drool-worthy, and the gnocchi was light and fluffy as it should be. It may not have been the biggest portions, but the quality was impeccable, and we left more than content with our choice.
As predicted, the rain had tired itself out by the time we tumbled back onto the street, and we continued our wander to the centre of town. We might not have been able to spy a glimpse of the towers from outside the city walls, but we did our best to admire their imposing shapes as they popped in and out of view on out walk.
Eventually we reached an undeniably attractive square, red bricked and complete with medieval well at its centre, flanked by the kinds of buildings which immediately come to mind when people conjure forth images of regional Italy: all golden hues, shutters, and creeping foliage. The entire scene was as picture perfect as any old town square could ever aspire to be. It was here we found ourselves among the few other tourists still travelling the country this late in the year, and, much like them, we took the opportunity to drop into the little award-winning gelateria off to one side. Minds reeling at the sheer number of flavours on offer, and trying to decide whether to go with the tried and true flavours, or venture in the realm of somewhat more experimental tastes, we eventually leant towards a combination of classics and more adventurous combinations, and we were in no way poorer for our choice. Personally, I think my concoction of passionfruit, mulberry, and blackberry & rosemary was a stroke of genius. That being said, I think Mother Nature favoured our choices too, as the sun decided to peak out through a break in the cloud cover so that we might bask in it while we devoured our frozen treats.
Another short jaunt and we reached a rather enviable vantage point down over the lush green landscape which surrounds the stony city; the view only serving to confirm as to why artists and film makers have been so enamoured with Tuscany for so long. It was here we took a quiet moment to drink in the beauty of our surrounds and be thankful for the opportunity to be amidst it.
San Gimignano was not to be our resting place for the evening though, and with the day wearing on, we needed to head onwards. Thus, back to the car we meandered, and the journey found us arriving at our home for the night just before nightfall. Where were we staying, I hear you ask? Just outside another of Italy’s hilltop towns; Orvieto. Checking into our Airbnb, with the assistance of our host who didn’t speak a word of English, and yet proved that communication without words is more than sufficient, we were soon heading out the door again, climbing the steep incline up to the town as the sun sank below the horizon. Strangely enough, exploring the town by night was a uniquely pleasurable experience. After all, we weren’t there to wander through shops, or explore the interiors of ageing buildings, we were there to wander the streets, breathe in the essence of the town, and most importantly, find another good meal.
Foot traffic was low but steady as we made our way through the streets, golden from the glow of the street lamps, and we enjoyed the cool night air as we stopped to admire the architecture, and the quaint little alleys. As we made our way around, it became clear that, much like in San Gimignano, finding a place to eat may prove to be a challenge, with many establishments closed for the winter. Just as we were considering the very real possibility that we might need to just find a supermarket and head home to cook, we reached the main square, home to the massive and breath-taking 14th century Orvieto Cathedral. Now, unlike the usual plain stone or marble facades which don the exteriors of most of Europe’s houses of God, this beauty takes a much more artistic approach to its decoration, with contrasting horizontal stripes running along its sides, and some rather impressive biblical paintings and a decent amount of gilding above the entrance. Even the square itself forgoes boring flagstones, for elaborate mosaics. Add to the scene the looming darkness all around, there was something most sacred about the vibe here.
Managing to peel our eyes away from the cathedral in the end, we spotted a little hotel in the far corner of the square, which looked as though it had a restaurant attached. Heading over to check out the menu board, we were stoked to see that it was open, and with its offerings looking irresistible, we hurried inside. As we entered, we realised that it was less a spacious restaurant, than a cosy cellar with tables crammed in at an alarming density, and every single one of them was full of chattering diners save for the one closest to the door, which we triumphantly claimed. This proved to be a stroke of good luck too, as in the following hour countless other groups wandered in hoping for a meal, only to be turned away. Keeping on theme for the day, the meals we ordered were outstanding, from the freshly sliced meats and cheese we snacked on over a drink, to the rustic Italian mains, including a scrumptious handmade pasta made with chestnut flour and tossed with chestnuts and sausage, a crispy piece of pork belly, and a lamb shank with a pea and ham sauce which tasted far better than it looked. Rounding the evening off with a chilled glass of limoncello, and it is with confidence I can say that our foodie adventure for the day was a raging success.
A much easier walk back down to our accommodation, and a solid night’s sleep, saw us waking to a foggy morning, shrouding Orvieto in an impenetrable veil. Alas, we had to bid the town farewell without a final glance of its beauty, as we had to complete our journey south to Rome. Patting the stray cats wandering around the street by our car, we hopped in and began our drive. We would not be taking the main highway which runs through the centre of the country today though, instead we were to head over to the west coast, for we had planned a stop in a little seaside town, both because it looked like a geographically interesting place on a map, and because long before the trip my brother told me that one day I should just point to a place on a map and go there; so that was exactly what we were planning on doing, even if he wasn’t there to enjoy it.
The weather had decided to favour our decision today, and as we drove the sky cleared up, bathing us in beautiful early winter sunshine. Two hours of driving down narrow country streets and coastal roads, and we finally crossed one of the two isthmuses which connect the mainland and our destination : the little port town of Porto Santo Stephano. Parking the car, we definitely understood why there was so many oh’s in the towns name. It’s so quintessentially coastal Italian its mildly offensive. Brightly coloured buildings dot the ascent up the hillside, looking, in the distance, as though they are slowly being devoured by the forest. The turquoise waves lapping gently in rock the boats docked in the port, their sailless masts swaying like metronomes in the breeze.
Walking along the seafront promenade, we searched the sporadically open shops for a place to eat, eventually making it all the way to the other end of town before deciding to settle into a meal at a restaurant on the water, serving, rather intelligently, fresh seafood whilst also sporting an unbeatable view through its almost exclusively windowed walls. Sharing the delights on offer, we lunched on some perfectly fried calamari and school prawns, a creamy prawn risotto with lemon, and a grilled red bream with roasted vegetables (which we half devoured before we realised we’d forgot to memorialise it with a photo). Thoroughly enjoying ourselves, and with plenty of time to make the remainder of the journey to drop our hire car off, we gambled that we wouldn’t get a ticket on our waning parking time, and fitted in a sneaky bit of dessert.
As much as we would have liked to have stayed, Rome called, and we scrambled back to the car, breathed a sigh of relief that the car sat ticketless, and completed the journey south. We were booked in to drop off our car at Rome Airport, because, as experience had proved, picking up and dropping off rentals at airports is significantly cheaper; however, Google, along with the blinding light of dusk, made finding the drop off point far more challenging than we’d hoped. Eventually, after a little circling, we figured it out, no thanks to the GPS or Google, who both have no idea where it is. Leaving our trusty steed behind, we booked a cab and were soon arriving at our Airbnb just west of Italy’s most famous city. The trip was a little pricy thanks to the usual airport booking fee, but our driver was friendly, and masterfully weaved through the frankly frightening Rome traffic. As he helped us unload our bags he warned us to be careful of pickpockets, bag snatchers, and gypsies, because he ‘doesn’t want visitors like us to have a bad experience of his home’. A beautiful sentiment really, and one I wish more locals worldwide would take up.
Ringing the buzzer to the apartment we were soon greeted by a familiar face: my brother. You see, he and his friend had ridden their bicycles from Venice to Rome in the week it had taken us to town-hop down here; an eyewatering 700 mile journey in just seven days, and an impressive feat by anyone’s standard. Now it was time for them, and us three for that matter, to settle in the one spot for a little while. We would be spending the next week exploring Rome and its surrounds, but for that night we were simply going to enjoy each other’s company, admire the view out the window to the all too recognisable dome of St Paul’s Cathedral only a hop, skip and jump away, and catch up on the goings on over some pizza from the tiny pizzeria downstairs.
As I settled into bed, I couldn’t help but smile at the events of the past two days. This is what we had come to Italy for: good food and good company. Not all of travelling needs to be fast paced sightseeing, delving into the history of ancient sites, or basking in nature’s glory; sometimes the greatest joys come from doing ordinary things in extraordinary places. Sometimes eating pasta with your mum and partner in a tiny trattoria or chowing down on pizza with your brother in a starkly decorated apartment in Rome can be just as soul fulfilling as the most exciting of adventures. After all, aren’t the best celebrations always accompanied by a meal and surrounded by those we love? And if so, does that not make this night a most jubilant celebration of life?