(If you haven't already, check out Day 3 before reading this entry.)
A Brief Note on Yesterday
I forgot to mention in my recap of Friday that on the advice of one of our travel guides, we stopped at the Rivoaltus handmade leather-bound journal shop on the Rialto Bridge on our way back to Locanda Orseolo in the afternoon. The quality of the journals was spectacular, and I picked one up for myself. A year later and I haven't yet figured out what to use it for, but I don't regret the purchase in the slightest.
We awoke fairly early on Saturday so that we could get an early start on picking up our rental car and heading from Venice to Montepulciano in Tuscany, where we'd be spending the next week. We packed our bags, glanced out our window at the courtyard below one last time, and said farewell to Stenterello, our room in Venice.
As we finished our meal and headed to the next room to check out, Barbara caught our eye and asked us how our stay in Venice had been. We told her all about our previous day in Venice and thanked her for the remarkable hospitality at Locanda Orseolo. Seeing that we had just finished breakfast, she asked us how we had enjoyed her husband, Matteo's specialty—chocolate-chip crepes. Sheepishly, we admitted that we hadn't indulged in the crepes at either of our two breakfasts. After Francesco had processed our paperwork and we had said a fond goodbye to him as well, we browsed through the Locanda's guest book before leaving an entry of our own. Emphasizing the magnitude of our oversight was the fact that almost every single testimonial in the guestbook raved about Matteo's chocolate-chip crepes. Alas!
So long, Venezia
We bid farewell to Locanda Orseolo and stopped at a kiosk near the post office to pick up a newspaper to check on the Mets. (For the record, the Mets went four games over 0.500 during our time in Italy.) Along the way, we reflected on our brief yet memorable time in Venice. We had walked innumerable calli and traversed as many ponti. We ate gelato and drank prosecco. We experienced four distinct forms of Venetian transportation: alilaguna (water shuttle), traghetto (canal-traversing gondola), vaporetto (water bus), and gondola. We toured St. Mark's Basilica, the Doge's Palace, and the island of Murano. And we met magnificently friendly people, not the least of which was the staff at Locanda Orseolo. Even as we reached Piazzale Roma to depart, we already knew that someday we'd be returning to Venice.
About three months before our trip, I had reserved a rental car through the Auto Europe, a car-rental broker that deals with several car-rental agencies in Europe. They reserved for us an automatic-transmission Mercedes A180 from Europcar for seven days for a total rate of $450 (very reasonable, especially considering the scarcity of automatic-transmission rentals in Italy). I must admit that before picking up our car, I was a bit nervous that we might not actually receive a car with an automatic transmission. Lynn can drive a manual... but just barely. In fact, this tiny anxiety of mine manifested itself in a dream I had a week or two before our vacation:
Lynn was driving along a classic Tuscan road in the nighttime, and I was in the passenger seat. The headlights illuminated cypress trees, sunflowers, and the uphill, curving road ahead of us. Apparently, we'd had the rental car for several days, but somehow had yet to negotiate much of a turn. As the car approaches the upcoming turn, Lynn begins to twist the wheel, but realizes that the car lacks power steering. [ed: do any modern cars not have power steering?]She cries out in alarm, and I reach over to help wrestle the wheel along the curve of the road. We fail, and the car flies off the curve...
...at which point I woke up. Suffice it to say that I was relieved when we received the car after a short fifteen-minute wait, and it was indeed an automatic.
Following a U-turn near Piazzale Roma, we were headed across the Ponte della Libertà and onto the A4 autostrada. Barely two minutes past the bridge, a small rock flew up from the road at our windshield, causing a booming noise and a tiny crack. Thankfully, that would be just about the most "exciting" mishap to occur on our vacation involving our rental car. We took the A4 west to the A13, turning south until we reached the A1. After an hour or so of driving, we pulled over at a rest stop to buy some water (sin gas, of course) and use the rest room. And so, just as I've done many times back in the States, I let myself into the (immaculately clean) rest room, emptied my bladder, and flushed the toilet.
And then I couldn't figure out how to get out of the stall.
There was a button, so I pushed it. There was a handle, so I turned it. There was still a handle, so I turned it in the other direction. There was a button and there was a handle, so I turned the handle and pushed the button at the same time. Despite my most clever machinations and visual inspections of the lock, the door remained steadfastly shut. I paused and looked around, contemplating my situation. There walls were down to the floor, so there would be no stall-to-stall escape. The stall was well-ventilated, mainly because of the openings near the fifteen-foot-high ceiling, to which I would never be able to climb. I returned my attention to the door. Button—no luck. Handle—no luck. Handle and shove—no luck. Shove, button, button, handle, shove—still no luck.
Finally, after what seemed like ten minutes of frantic attempts and rising panic, my latest shove on the door was met with some Italian words and an answering pull on the door from the outside. The door opened, and I stumbled outside, gratefully thanking the kind Italian woman who had freed me. Realizing that she worked at the rest stop, I left her a small gratuity, mumbled my thanks once more, and meekly treaded back to Lynn at the car, glad to have survived my first encounter with an autostrada rest stop.
Back on the highway, we continued south. Lynn did an excellent job in her first experience on European roads, staying in the right lane except to pass and yielding to faster traffic when in the left lane. We drove past a variety of landscapes, up and down hills, and through tunnels. A few hours into our trip we stopped at a famed Autogrill rest stop. Two sandwiches later (buffalino for me, rustica mediterranea for Lynn) and I slid behind the wheel for the final leg of our drive to Montepulciano. We pulled off the A1 at the Valdichiana exit where we waited in unexplained traffic for 20 minutes. (This turned out to be the most traffic we'd experience in our week in Tuscany.)
Using a combination of maps, directions printed off our destination's web site, and the ubiquitous Tuscan village signposts on which we'd learn to rely over the next week, we navigated the several miles from the highway to Montepulciano. A missed turn led to us almost driving the car into the restricted (to motor vehicles) area of the Montepulciano historic center, and another missed turn at the foot of the hill just south of Montepulciano forced us to seek directions at a gas station. Minutes later, though, we arrived at Sant' Antonio.
Sant' Antonio and Montepulciano
Although we had considered some other places in Tuscany, when we read the Slow Travel reviews of Sant' Antonio, we knew we'd found a terrific place to stay in southern Tuscany. We drove up the driveway with olive groves to our left and stopped at the small office where we met Sant' Antonio's extremely professional and friendly proprietor, Nico, as well as his kind and generous employee, Susanna. Sant' Antonio consists of various apartments and cottages on the renovated grounds of an old Franciscan monastery. Nico greeted us warmly and told us about the amenities available at Sant' Antonio, as well as about his restaurant in nearby Bagno Vignoni. Susanna then showed us to our apartment—the Brunelleschi apartment.
The apartment was spacious and furnished simply but comfortably. After unpacking some of our clothes, we heard a soft knock on the door. I opened the door, and a gray and black striped cat came bounding happily into the apartment! He (she?) leapt onto the chairs, tables, and sofas, acting very much at home. He played with Lynn's purse strings for a bit, and then I held him in my arms as Lynn prepared to take a picture of us. Unfortunately:
- Lynn's not well-practiced at using our camera with the flash, and
- I'm not well-practiced at holding a cat
Not long thereafter, we gathered ourselves together and headed back towards the old hill town of Montepulciano. We parked in a lot outside the city walls and entered through the giant stone Porta al Prato. With the daylight fading, we strolled leisurely up the steep Corso, Montepulciano's main street. We savored our first views of the a multilevel Tuscan hill town, filled with crooked streets, narrow alleys, below-street-level restaurants, archways, and sweeping vistas of the countryside at dusk.
We doubled back up another street to check out Montepulciano's Piazza Grande and its Duomo (cathedral) but found the way blocked by a screened off blockade and a sign announcing a performance of Ginevra e Lancillotto, an opera telling "la storia dell’amore sfortunato fra Lancillotto del Lago e la Regina Ginevra". (Apparently, this was part of the annual summer theater festival known as Bruscello.) Too hungry from our long drive to consider buying tickets for the show, we instead walked around the town a bit more, searching for a restaurant at which to eat.
Near Piazza Grande (on Via S. Donato), we found Ai Quattro Venti. With a handful of tables outdoors, we chose to dine there, hoping to enjoy a good meal and perhaps catch some of the opera at the same time. Reality more than lived up to these hopes. We began our meal with crostini con creme funghi and bruschetta. For our primi, Lynn loved the gnocchi con norcina, and I feasted on the tagliatelle con funghi. Both pasta dishes were fresh and booming with simple flavors. We shared a secundo of scallopine (veal?) which, while very good, was not as impressive as the pasta dishes. Meanwhile, the opera had started and our taste buds were serenaded with beautiful Italian love songs. I couldn't tell you how many times Lynn and I looked at each other during the meal and smiled, hardly believing that we were eating a fantastic meal on a warm summer evening in a Tuscan hill town while listening to a local performance of an Italian opera. Seriously, what more could you possibly want out of life?
We finished our meal with dessert—sharing a tartufo biancho and a chocolate mousse. We sat at the table for another twenty minutes or so before reluctantly rousing ourselves and walking slowly and contentedly back down the Corso and back to the car. We'd return to Ai Quattro Venti later in the week, and in retrospect it was probably our favorite restaurant of our entire week in Tuscany. Delicious.
A five minute drive back to Sant' Antonio and our apartment, and we were happily asleep before midnight. We'd had just a small taste of what Tuscany had to offer, and yet I knew already that I would be surely be smiling for the entire week to come.
Next time: we discover pecorino cheese and travel to Siena where we picnic at a church and experience Il Palio!
Please enjoy all of the pictures from our third day in Italy in my photo album.