Farming & Fortezzas: Tuscany pt. 4

We spent two glorious days out at Giovanni and Grazie Amirrabile’s farm near Firenze. They have a vineyard and an olive grove along with a large community garden. The Amirrabiles are good friends with Jessica and Stephanie. We were invited to join the family for a down home Tuscan farm lunch and to do a little work on the garden. Dirt therapy sounded like a good thing to us. Unfortunately for our first visit it was to be mud therapy. It had been pouring rain for the past 24 hours, and the fields were huge clay bogs. That stopped our work, but it didn’t stop us from enjoying the lunch. There is an order to Tuscan/Italian meals. I forget the fancy names given to each course, but it goes something like this. First came the pasta. When the pasta was ready the meal began. Nobody likes cold pasta! Giovanni treated me to his special homemade olive oil pepper sauce to add to my pasta. It added an incredible kick to an already mouth watering dish. There was such a huge vat of pasta on the table that I mistakenly thought it was the entire meal. After that came the meat dish. The first time we ate there Grazie served us chicken, the next time she served us eggs. (I always thought that the egg came before the chicken in answer to that age-old question.) After that came the salad. Throughout the meal there was fresh Tuscan bread, gallons of olive oil for everything, and always a full glass of Chianti. It’s no wonder they usually take a nap after lunch! To keep us moving their daughter Kati made us espressos and passed around a basket of kumquats for dessert. And of course everything was grown right there on the farm. After our rainy day meal Phil (an American who married into the farm via Kati) toured us around the farm and the adjoining church retreat center. We learned about olive oil (Extra virgin means it’s the first pressing of oil for the season, the highest quality and should be a little green in the bottle). We saw where they prepared the grapes for the Chianti they make. It’s an amazing place.

We came back about a week later to help out in their garden. Along with Phil and his three-year-old son, Benjamin, we set to staking beans, planting tomatoes, and digging holes for zucchini. After a few hours of digging, trenching, carrying, and planting we joined the rest of the family for lunch back up at the farmhouse. Phil walked us through the vineyards and olive groves on the way back. It’s a huge job for one family to run an operation like this. Lunch was once again wonderful, and we went back to work to complete our tomatoes. The ground here is sticky clay with tons of rock in it. It blows my mind that anything grows in it, but grow it does. Phil explained that it’s important for the plants to struggle a bit if they are going to produce any favorable fruit. They might not produce as much fruit as plants that grow in “cushy soil,” but they will produce much hardier and fuller flavored crops. It seems to work. Everything produced on the farm tasted great. So thank you to Giovanni and Grazie, and Phil and Kati for opening your table and lives to us. We look forward to visiting and working together again some day.

We met another family through Stephanie named Eduardo and Karla Godoy. Eduardo is a doctor at the Army base who is about to return to California. We swapped emails over dinner one night and later made plans for an evening hike outside of the town of Vicopisano to a place called Fortezza Verruca. The fortezza is located on a wart-like outcropping of rock on top of a hill overlooking the Arno Valley between Pisa and Florence. Remember that these two towns were economic rivals and archenemies for much of their medieval history. Pisa built this fortress as a lookout and last stand against the Florentine invaders. It was pretty effective but eventually fell to Florence sometime after the plague ravaged the population of Pisa. The old fortress is rumored to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci, but the area had been used as a stronghold long before him dating back into the 8th century AD. It was a bumpy four-wheel-drive to the hiking trail (which had the kids shrieking with glee as they bounced and bonked their heads on the roof ) and a steep climb to the fortress ruins. Eduardo, his two-year-old son Paco, Matt (a nurse at the base), Stephanie, and the rest of us climbed on and under everything. The views of the Arno Valley were stellar as we watched the clouds blow in from the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was a refreshing evening not unlike taking a hike in our local Santa Barbara hills. Except of course that here we were visiting a fortress five times older than anything built back home. Thank you Eduardo for your hospitality and the hike. We hope to return the favor someday when you return to the states.


One thing we have noticed along our travels is that European tourists don’t just smile for the camera when they take pictures in front of monuments or dramatic landscapes. They strike poses. Think of cheesy pop-idol poses found in teen magazines. The authorities at these sites often frown upon these poses. Remember how Steve Greig got reprimanded for imitating the Olympic discus thrower? Well, Leah gave us proper lessons in how to strike these poses. Sam and Emma really seem to have the a gift for the pose. Sarah Jane, fortunately, has more common sense. Here are a few of our attempts to blend in with the Euro-tourists.


Sarah Jane


Lucca & Pisa: Tuscany pt. 3

We cruised over the mountains to the north of Pisa and visited the massively walled city of Lucca. Lucca was a textile rival city to Florence and Pisa. It seems that all these cities were violent rivals at one time or another. To protect itself Lucca built cannonball-proof walls. So impressive were these walls that no one ever dared to attack the city via the walls. Today the walls stand guard to the quaint streets, shops, homes, gelaterias, churches and towers of old Lucca. The walls are THICK. In a way they are the main attraction to the city. We even rented bikes and rode around the city atop these ancient ramparts. It sounds dangerous, but it’s like riding your bike on a two way street without any car traffic. You get tremendous views of the old city inside the walls and the new city that surrounds the walls.

We also wandered the streets in search of the old clock tower with hand wound Swiss movements that have been striking chimes quarter hourly now for about 200 years. Meg and the kids climbed the clock tower just in time for the chiming. They loved it. I had to stay down at ground level having retorn part of my calf muscle while jogging back from the bike rental shop. I hobbled around town at a snail’s pace. Later we made our way over to the remains of an old Roman amphitheater. All that are left are a few stones from an entryway arch. The current buildings were built upon the foundations from the old outer walls and form a circular “square” where the old arena floor would have been. It’s kind of fun to stand in the middle of this shopping area and imagine the gladiators duking it out over Italia sweatshirts and postcards.

Pisa was a pleasant surprise. What we had read was not all that complimentary about spending time here. Admitted, parking was a nightmare. In fact we failed at our first attempt to visit Pisa. We aimlessly wandered streets for about an hour before we gave up, had a picnic along the Arno River, and headed back home. We came back another day, having figured out how to actually enter the city, and had a great time. The main square, the Field of Miracles, was where we hung out. It is a vast grassy area inside the old city walls. We were all impressed that there was actually grass and that you could not only walk on it but picnic on it if you chose. Four huge structures spread out across this lawn: the Leaning Tower, the Duomo, the baptistery, and the mausoleum. The contrast of the clouds in the blue sky, the bright green lawn, and the white marbled buildings was dazzling. The Duomo church was beautiful inside and outside. The mosaics above the altar were my favorite. The complex represented the life cycle for Pisanos: baptized at birth in the Baptistery, married in the Duomo, and buried at the cemetery/mausoleum next door. The Tower was to function as the bell tower announcing all the events of this field. And yes, the Tower really is leaning. Actually, all the structures in this field lean to one side or another. I guess that’s what happens when you build on top of an old river marsh. Shortly after construction began on the tower, it was noted that the foundation was sinking on one side causing the structure to lean. Construction halted with only four stories of the building completed, and it sat unfinished for about 100 years. Another architect thought he could rectify the problem by angling the building back against its slant and built another three levels of the structure. This gave the Tower a banana-like curve but did nothing to stop the sinking and slant. It again sat unfinished for about 100 years. Yet another architect threw his energy into the project and finished the last couple of stories to this bell tower. Like his predecessor he angled the latest addition back against the slant, further accentuating the crescent shape of the structure. And it still continued to sink. Over the centuries the angle grew to such an extent that it was feared the Tower would topple over. It’s rumored that Galileo, a local Pisano, did his experiments with falling objects from the Tower. Eventually it was closed out of fear that it would fall. Over the past twenty years millions and millions of dollars have been spent to try and halt the continuing slump of the Tower, and engineers have been able to reverse a few inches of tilt. It is now open but costs a ridiculous 15 euros to enter. It is fun to look at from ground level and strike the typical tourist pose of trying to hold the Tower up.

Lucca Amphitheater

Volterra & San Gimignano: Tuscany pt. 2

From our home base in Tremoleto we took the long and winding road to Volterra. This hilltop town was once one of the most influential Etruscan towns in all of Italy. Today it is a well touristed stop more noted for its medieval fortress. We hit it on a rainy Monday hoping to avoid the crowds but to no avail. We must have circled the town three times before we found a parking place. Once inside we were well rewarded with picturesque narrow cobblestone streets, flower-boxed public squares, and several gelaterias. There was even an antique car show going on in the main square. We didn’t go into the old fortress there in town, but I was intrigued to find out that this 500 year-old castle is now a maximum-security prison for about 60 inmates. We were told that it is a dark, depressing place. That should give pause to one’s involvement in crime.

After a quick snack in a coffee bar we made a mad dash to the Etruscan museum. I rented the audio guide this time and learned a lot. There is very little left of Etruscan life but tons centered on Etruscan death. Meaning that most of what we know about the Etruscans comes from their graves. Their old cities were built over by the Romans and later by the medieval castle-estates. So what we have in this museum is a collection of items found in the necropolis of Volterra. The Etruscans of this area were cremators. After death bodies were burned and the ashes placed in small sarcophagi. These sarcophagi were then buried in a tomb along with whatever belongings the family deemed important for the afterlife. It’s a good museum, way better than the Etruscan Museum in Rome. As it should be, since this is the place where the artifacts are from. I like it when the smaller towns are able to hold onto their archaeological heritage.

There is one piece of the old Etruscan city still standing in Volterra, an arched entry that was incorporated into the Roman/Medieval city. The stones are pretty eroded, but that’s what happens when you’ve been left out in the elements for over two thousand years.

On another day we wandered similar carsickness inducing roads to the famous towered city of San Gimignano. Almost every hilltop fortress city had these funky towers in them. They weren’t really dwelling places, although some of them were used as homes and some were used as lookouts. But their main intended function was to be a giant clothesline. These towns made their fortunes and were known for their textile manufacturing and dyeing. Long pieces of freshly dyed fabric would be hung from a tower to dry. San Gimignano still has a dozen-plus of its original four-dozen-plus towers. Many were damaged by earthquakes and later disassembled with the cut stones reused to build other structures. When you walk the tiny streets of the town it’s difficult to imagine how they could fit more towers within the walls of the city, but somehow they did.

This town was supposed to be a major tourist trap and we came prepared for the worst. But on this Friday it was empty. Go figure! We climbed the Torre Grosso, wandered the streets, ate lunch in front of the Duomo, played in the park, and had gelato at a place claiming to have won the “World Cup of Gelato” (we’ve had better). The views from atop the tower were unbelievable! You could see forever. We’re talking the curvature of the earth kind of views. After photo opps we wandered back to our car and cruised home to Tremoleto. It was really great.

Tremoleto, Lorenzana, & Fauglia: Tuscany pt. 1

We have had the incredible good fortune of being able to spend the past month in one place. As I mentioned earlier, we have been staying with Stephanie, the friend of a friend of a friend. She let us live in the downstairs area of her tri-level home in Tremoleto. You say you haven’t ever heard of Tremoleto? That’s because it’s quiet.

Tremoleto is about 30 minutes southeast of Pisa and about an hour and a half west of Florence. It is in a rural area surrounded by mixed forests of elms and Italian Stone Pines. There are numerous farms with everything from beans to vineyards to olives to pulp trees. The town of about 200+/- residents rests on top of a small knoll and is centered around an old church. There is one trattoria (Italian for a quick sit-down restaurant, not that any eating experience is actually quick), a couple of groupings of homes, and a cemetery. That’s pretty much it. And for us, after a couple of months tramping around in large cities, it was like heaven. We took long walks on the tiny roads from there, planted a garden for Stephanie, did household chores, fixed meals, and let the kids just hang out and play. I even swapped soccer jerseys with Maxmiliano the neighbor who just couldn’t figure us out. It was just what we needed.

One day I rode a bike to a town called Lorenzana located just across the valley on a neighboring hilltop. It is about three times as large as Tremoleto and even has a stoplight to help regulate the traffic down its single lane main street. Since this is the only street through town and only wide enough to handle one tiny car at a time, there is a stop light at either end of the town to regulate traffic. On the top of the hill there is a church from which we could hear the beautiful chiming of bells throughout the day, even across the way in Tremoleto. Steph watched the kids one Sunday afternoon, which afforded Meg and I the rare opportunity for a “date.” We had a typical Tuscan meal at Lorenzana’s main restaurant called La Fraschetta. I am really learning to like good food: zuppa Toscana and zuppa de farro, panne Toscana, formagio Italiano with miel, cingale sausage, and a bottle of local Chianti. All served on the patio overlooking farm valleys and forested hills as far as the eye could see. Yeah, it was romantic.

One day we decided to explore a dirt road across the highway from the entrance to our village of Tremoleto. We wandered for about an hour along farms, vineyards, and forested lanes. We found porcupine quills and wild boar burrows along the embankments. The wind was really blowing and made great sculptures in the clouds as well as ocean waves in the tall grasses on hillsides. It was really beautiful. Eventually we popped out into the tiny town of Fauglia. It too has a streetlight just like the one in Lorenzana. And just like Tremoleto and Lorenzana, and for that matter pretty much every other small Tuscan town we visited, it sat on top of a hill with and old church at its center. We were hoping for a gelateria but had to settle for a coffee bar where Sarah Jane discovered panne ciocolato. She’s been hooked ever since.

We’ve all been hooked by the beauty and pace of life here. On our last day here, Emma woke up and immediately said, “I don’t want to go. It’s so beautiful here.” That sums it up.