LETTER FROM ITALY - By John Durley (Article)
It all began when my wife received word that her request for a leave of absence had been approved. Our next step was to decide where in Europe to spend the time available.
We were in the process of signing up with a house exchange agency when a friend put us in touch with the owner of a house in NW Tuscany, Italy. After a brief exchange of e-mails, we agreed to rent it for 3 months.
The first thing we learned about Tuscany was that everyone you have ever known has already been there. The next was that we would need a car and that the best plan was to buy a brand new car, made in France, with a guaranteed buy-back.( This is due to French tax law and does not apply to periods of less than 17 days or more than roughly 6 months.) We opted for a small Peugeot (diesel), and the all-inclusive cost, with no mileage limits, was about $30 a day. You can choose from many locations in Europe to pick up the car, and we drove off in ours from the Nice airport.
The drive along the French and Italian Rivieras was a spectacular mixture of rugged scenery, laced with lots of tunnels and bridges. About 2 hours south of Genoa, we exited from the divided highway and were soon at our new residence- an old stone house in a village of about 20 homes. We had assumed that we would be in classic Tuscan country, with its endless vistas of rolling countryside. Instead, we had a 15 minute drive up a narrow mountain road with lots of blind corners and hairpin turns. Welcome to the Apian Alps; not especially high, but rugged and heavily wooded with patches of vineyards and olive groves on the lower slopes.
With time, we came to realize that our location gave us many nearby choices to explore. These ranged from trails by our house that the locals used to hunt wild boar, to endless villages that were somehow perched on the sides of mountains, and finally, a variety of usually charming urban centers. The closest city, Lucca, was a favourite. With a population of 90,000, it has one of the best preserved walls in Europe. The limited vehicle access encourages lots of relaxed socializing on the narrow streets.
We could see the ocean from our village on clear days, and went many times to Viareggio, the chief resort center on the northern Tuscan coast. With over 100 hotels and 3km of beach lined with restaurants and upscale stores, it buzzes. To our dismay, all but a few feet of beach are “private” and prices to sit on a chair under an umbrella rival the cost of a day of downhill skiing.
Pisa was an easy half-hour’s drive from Lucca and is much more than the leaning tower. The latter sits on one of the loveliest squares we have seen, next to the stunning cathedral and bapistery.It is a university city, with many attractive old buildings on either side of the curving Arno River.
We chose to visit Florence several times with day train trips. The train service is excellent and very reasonably priced, e.g. the 75 km trip from Lucca to Florence costs about 9 euros, return. Florence is overloaded with “musts “ to see, and tourists seeing them. The train is a relaxing entry to, and exit from, the crowded city.
We also visited Siena, a pleasing contrast to Florence, as it is smaller, more compact and easy to access by car. On one visit, we chose to overnight in Volterra, a walled city of 15,000, about 1 1/2 hours west of Siena. It offers an attractive setting, a 13th century monastery to stay in, and a vehicle free environment.
Our final outings were to Rome, the Amalfi coast and Pompeii to the south and later, Venice to the north-east. Both trips were by car and we stayed in smaller centers outside of Rome and Venice and used the commuter trains for daily access. In addition to the stress - free way of getting to the large urban centers, it was a bonus to see life in smaller towns. Palestrina, another walled town and a 35 minute train ride from Rome, was a special favourite.
Italy is an easy country to visit with its natural and man-made beauty, its history and overall quality of life. Of course, we had the added advantage of time so we didn’t feel the constant pressure to cram in too much sightseeing. It was an adjustment to find ourselves where we didn’t know anyone. While my wife speaks some Italian, we were just another of the many short-term visitors flocking to Italy and unlikely to develop a network of Italian friends. We were fortunate to have several visitors from Canada which allowed for lots of socializing and exploratory trips. All in all, a delightful way to see and experience a delightful country.
Appendix TRAVEL TIPS
(i) We soon discovered the different levels of prices in cafes/bars. The cheapest is if you stand at the counter and drink/eat; carrying your order and occupying a table costs more, and finally, if someone brings the order to your table, the price likely doubles;
(ii) Traffic circles are very common and it’s important to remember when you are entering one, that the vehicle on the left has the right of way;
(iii) Public washrooms are difficult to find. The best strategy was to go to a cafe for a cappuccino and use the washroom. This of course resulted in needing another washroom, and another cappu....you get the idea;
(iv) There are not a lot of cyber-cafes. In some centers, you can access a computer, for free, at the library. The alternative was either a tourist bureau or a commercial operation, with rates of up to 6 euros an hour;
(v) We found the supposed rigours of driving in Italy were somewhat exaggerated. It’s possible that our special red license plate conveyed the message that we were tourists and therefore forgiven. Yes, people drive faster; on the divided highways, the speed limit was 135 km, and some cars go by at 150kmph, or more. The understanding is that the passing lane is just that and in no way should you slow the progress of a faster vehicle. Tail-gating is common, and until I caught on to the accepted practice in the passing lane, I saw lots of shiny grilles in the rearview mirror. The other noticeable difference was the high-risk passing technique on undivided roads. In many cases, the passer assumes that the oncoming car will move over onto the shoulder, or, that there is nothing coming over the hill or around the blind corner. A faith based style that always raises one’s heart beat;
(vi) We had assumed that we would often shop for food in bustling out- door markets. Except for special weekend events, there were few markets. There were lots of supermarkets and many of them as complete and cutting edge as the newest Loblaw’s. Some of the different practices were interesting; cashiers all sit at the check-out counters; customers put on plastic gloves when choosing fruits and vegetables and must then weigh and code each selection. (vii) Automation is more advanced in Italy. We bought gas, parked in huge garages and paid highway tolls, with no humans in sight The ultimate in automation seemed to be in some washrooms with sensors that activated flushing, soap, water to wash, and paper towels. Great stuff when they work;
(viii) Most churches have dress codes and this usually includes a ban on shorts and skimpy tops.
Tags: John Durley